Duck and cover

“The Highway Patrol is notified when any [plutonium] is moved through North Carolina.”

— Sgt. P.V. Staggs, chief public-information officer,N.C. Highway Patrol

“They [the Highway Patrol] would not get any notification for plutonium.”

— DOE spokesperson, Savannah River Site

Asheville will soon become a major crossroads in the transport of nuclear materials — including low-level reactor waste, extremely radioactive spent-fuel assemblies, highly enriched uranium, and weapons-grade plutonium — moving from point to point within the Southeast as well as between this region and the western United States. Congressional approval (July 9, 2002) of the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository in Nevada has given a green light to the transfer of approximately 96,300 shipments of high-level waste over a 40-year period beginning in 2010. Weapons-grade plutonium and reactor fuel is already routinely hauled through the region; if implemented, the Bush administration’s military and energy policies will increase the traffic in both. All of this is in addition to the ongoing transport of low-level waste to a South Carolina dump site.

According to a U.S. Department of Energy environmental-impact statement, an estimated 272 casks of spent reactor fuel — each containing 240 times the amount of long-lived radioactive material released at Hiroshima — will travel through the city by truck and rail each year between 2010 and 2048. This does not include shipments of new reactor fuel or bomb-grade fissionable material — or the low-level waste that’s already routinely shipped through the region.

A thousand points of plutonium?

A quick look at a map of atomic facilities reveals that Asheville lies at a nuclear nexus. The Nuclear Fuel Services fuel-fabrication and uranium-recovery facility is located just north of Asheville, across the state line in Erwin, Tenn. NFS supplies highly enriched uranium to the U.S. Navy for subs, aircraft carriers and other vessels. According to the company, the facility also recycles weapons-grade uranium into “lower commercial enrichments,” and processes “the entire range of low-enriched uranium.”

To our west, also in Tennessee are the DOE’s Oak Ridge Operation and the Y-12 National Security Complex, where nuclear warheads are assembled.

To the south (in Aiken, S.C.), sits the Savannah River Site, where nuclear weapons were manufactured into the early 1990s and where other plutonium processing is still carried out. A new unit at SRS will soon become the sole source for Oak Ridge-bound warhead material created by reprocessing plutonium — most of it to be hauled in from Colorado.

Near that site, in Barnwell County, S.C., is the Chem-Nuclear Systems low-level nuclear-waste dump.

In addition, Asheville is ringed by nuclear-power plants in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Virginia — many of which are scheduled to begin sending highly radioactive spent fuel westward toward Yucca Mountain, Nev. (by both rail and highway routes that pass through Buncombe County), eight years from now. At the same time, Duke Energy is seeking to convert two of its uranium-fired plants near Charlotte to use plutonium fuel.

Ironically, the extension of Interstate 26, which was touted by boosters as an economic boon for the region, may actually facilitate increased shipments of nuclear material through WNC (the bulk of the long-running road project is due to be completed next summer). The radioactive traffic includes plutonium on its way to Aiken from Rocky Flats, Colo.; spent fuel assemblies headed west to Yucca Mountain; and low-level wastes destined for Barnwell.

All of this must come as a shock to those who believed that WNC had permanently diverted nuclear traffic 14 years ago when plans for an eastern repository in East Tennessee were cancelled.

Risky wrecks?

Many local citizens have expressed concern about the safety of such shipments, considering the number of accidents that routinely happen on our mountain roads. According to the N.C. Highway Patrol, there have been more than 549 motor-vehicle collisions on Buncombe County highways so far this year, and area residents are well aware of the frequent truck wrecks on WNC highways.

“If we had an incident involving one of those trucks with radioactive material in it,” explains Buncombe County Emergency Management Director Jerry Vehaun, “the first responders who got there, whether it be law enforcement or fire, would, of course, recognize the radioactive placard. If it was law enforcement, they would more or less secure the scene till a more appropriate group got there, somebody with haz-mat [hazardous material] training.”

(According to a story in the Omaha World-Herald about a trucking accident involving nuclear materials, “Energy Department officials have said nuclear weapons are moved in unmarked tractor-trailer rigs that are heavily fortified with safety equipment.” Xpress was unable to obtain a confirmation or denial of this policy vis-a-vis fuel or waste shipments.)

The regional response team for hazardous material, says Vehaun, is based here in Asheville. The equipment comes from the state, which contracts with the Asheville Fire Department. “With that in mind, the procedure that we would use [is] we would seal off the area until we determined if there was any breech of the container.”

The next step, says Vehaun, would be notifying the appropriate federal agencies. “Anytime we had an incident like that, we would contact the Department of Energy and [the] Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and probably, we’d just have to stand by and wait until some of the people got on the scene before the thing was moved.”

Another crucial task, said Vehaun, would be to determine the area within which the radioactive material could endanger both rescue workers and civilians.

“Anytime you’ve got radiation, it’s a matter of securing the scene and not being where that radiation was escaping, which is a distance factor. … In some cases, you may not have to get back more than 15 or 20 feet. In some cases you may have to come back 50 or 100 feet.”

But according to a report by the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, which has analyzed safety issues surrounding the Yucca Mountain repository, “A person standing one yard away from an unshielded, 10-year-old fuel assembly would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than three minutes and would incur significant damage within seconds.” This would seem to offer very little time for first responders to analyze the situation.

Furthermore, a study of potential radionuclide accidents by the Georgia State Environmental Protection Division involving powdered materials deposited on roadways concluded: “After passage of about 100 cars only a small fraction of the original contamination remained on the road surface. Unless emergency officials promptly close the accident scene to vehicle traffic (an unlikely situation), emergency responders may face an incident scene that is, unknown to them, extremely hazardous due to respirable plutonium. Post-emergency actions may also be complicated due to the enhanced spread of contamination by vehicle traffic.”

The plutonium fuel shipped through WNC will be in powdered form.

A study by the nonprofit group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimates that 27 micrograms of insoluble plutonium-239 in the lungs would be enough to cause cancer in an adult human being. (By way of comparison, there are 1 million micrograms of powder in a pink packet of sugar-free sweetener.) And Mary Olsen, regional director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (a national nuclear-industry watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.) points out, “To me, those shipments are the ones that cause me worry, in terms of lying in bed at night.”

The planned shipment of plutonium from Colorado to Aiken prompted South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges to threaten last year that he would use the highway patrol — and possibly his own body — to physically block shipments of nuclear waste through his state. One incipient SRS project involves converting plutonium — originally produced at a now-closed nuclear-power plant in Rocky Flats, Colo. — into reactor fuel, a process that will be carried out at the Savannah River Site. (Playing both sides of the field, Hodges actively sought the siting of the new project at SRS, leading erstwhile supporters to label him “a fraud.”)

Olsen finds this project particularly alarming. “They’ve never done this before,” she said. “It’s a complete experiment to take weapons-grade plutonium and turn it into reactor fuel, and the Carolinas are really the home of this experiment.” She added, “It’s going to endanger Asheville and all of the Carolinas if they put this stuff into reactors, because it’s harder to control in the event of a reactor accident. And plutonium is twice as deadly as uranium.”

How low is “low”?

According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Kenneth Clark, commercial waste consists mostly of low-level radioactive material that “doesn’t require any special security” and “wouldn’t hurt you if you got in it and cleaned it up” in the event of an accident.

Higher-level waste, explained Clark, is accompanied by security personnel. States along the route are notified when such shipments will be passing through their territory, but specific routes are not disclosed, and the states are told only that shipments will be arriving and when they have left.

Olsen also warns that the distinction between high- and low-level waste does not necessarily refer to actual levels of radioactivity. “‘High’ is only the irradiated fuel from the reactors and some of the waste that’s left over from an attempt to reuse fuel,” she explained. “Everything else is considered ‘low,’ including reactor components — which give lethal exposures to anyone near them and which will also be radioactive for thousands of years, if not millions. … But it also contains stuff that truly has low concentrations [and is] hardly radioactive.”

Vehaun, however, says he’s confident that the securely built shipping containers and the skills of local rescue workers will be sufficient to protect the public from significant danger from the radioactive materials being hauled through our area. “When these containers have been involved in accidents, they never had one to break open,” said Vehaun. “Those types of incidents with radioactive material really don’t concern me as much as a truckload of gasoline or propane going down the highway.”

In fact, however, the containers that will be shipped through Asheville have never been used anywhere before and will not be crash-tested before being put into use. The Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear industry advocacy organization composed of more than 250 energy- and weapons-related corporations, reports, “The containers must be able to pass a sequence of hypothetical tests” (italics ours).

Lou Zeller, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League who has given expert testimony in numerous Department of Energy hearings, told Xpress: “Real-world crash tests have not been done on the transport casks which would be used to ship irradiated nuclear reactor fuel. The crash tests done by Sandia [National Laboratories] decades ago, and which are still shown in a video widely circulated by the Nuclear Energy Institute, were done on obsolete casks. … Those casks were breached. The purpose of those tests was to produce a computer algorithm which is used to do computer-model tests on modern casks. Computer modeling now substitutes for crash tests.”

Some have even questioned the basic design of the casks. In testimony before Congress last April, physicist Marvin Resnikoff pointed out that temperatures in the July 2001 Baltimore rail-tunnel fire had exceeded the design criteria for the untested casks. (Over 21 chemicals routinely transported on our highways burn at temperatures above that level.) Resnikoff, a senior staffer at Radioactive Waste Management Associates (technical consultants to the state of Nevada) said: “Our report for the state of Nevada traced the progressive degradation of a hypothetical rail cask in the tunnel fire. … We determined that a single rail cask in such an accident could have contaminated an area of 32 square miles. Failure to clean up the resulting contamination, at a cost of $13.7 billion, would cause 4,000 to 28,000 cancer deaths over the next 50 years. Between 200 and 1,400 latent cancer fatalities would be expected from exposures during the first year.”

A greater danger

As alarming as these accident scenarios may be, however, nuclear-industry critics say this concern is misplaced. Asked to comment on Vehaun’s statement concerning the hazard presented by the transport scheme, Zeller said: “The answer from the local emergency responder misses the point. Radiation exposure occurs regardless of whether accidents happen or not.”

If the transport containers were thick enough to completely block radiation, these critics maintain, they would be too heavy to transport economically. The current design represents an engineering compromise to permit cost-effective shipping.

This is the real problem, according to Olsen. “Even without accidents, trucks hauling reactor waste — such as control rods and irradiated reactor components — are transformed into mobile X-ray machines that dose everything and everyone they pass.”

Olsen says she’s observed elevated readings on her own Geiger counter while driving near trucks bearing the radiation-hazard placard. Those exposure rates, according to the DOE, are equivalent to one chest X-ray for every hour of continued exposure (at 3 feet away from the container) to 100 per hour of exposure (at the container’s surface). Citing such typical scenarios as trucks trapped in backed-up traffic, trucks parked at restaurants and motels, and drivers who repeatedly inspect their vehicles, Olson emphasized how widespread a threat this is.

Zeller agrees, repeating that the most dangerous scenario is not what happens when the proposed system fails, but when it works as planned.

Proponents of nuclear power often use comparisons with chest X-rays to reassure the public. But a peer-reviewed 1999 study by Dr. John Gofman, a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in nuclear and physical chemistry, concluded that routine X-rays (and other ionizing-radiation sources, such as CT scans) are responsible for more than 50 percent of the death rate from cancer and more than 60 percent of the death rate from coronary artery disease. Although his findings are clearly controversial, they appear to be consistent with the regulatory trend that has seen officially sanctioned “safe” levels of radiation exposure continually decrease over the past five decades. Gofman, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at the University of California Berkeley and a faculty member at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco, also conducted safety studies for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at Livermore National Laboratory.

The DOE analyzed radiation exposures from the transport of high-level nuclear wastes and found that even routine, incident-free radiation doses to both transport personnel and the general public would far exceed the risks from accidental exposures. “It is clear that the incident-free dose would be much higher than the accident doses for each of the fuel types,” the DOE stated in its 1995 Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Foreign Research Reactor Spent Fuel.

Furthermore, the EIS states that the threat of “death and injuries to workers and the public is less if the waste remains in its existing storage sites.” BREDL reports that according to DOE’s own analysis reactor sites can safely store the waste for another 50-100 years. And, in its report to Congress in 1996, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board stated that “The mehods now used to store spent fuel at reactor sites are safe and likely to remain safe for decades to come.” Apparently the only impetus to move it at all is to make room for more waste – that is – to facilitate administration plans for increased dependence on nuclear energy.

The terrorist threat

In addition to the continual irradiation of civilians during routine transport and the potential for high exposure during accidents, there is yet another concern: terrorist attack or theft. Such shipments were halted following the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., last year, but they were later resumed.

Full-scale tests by Sandia National Laboratory, published in 1983, used an explosive charge on an outdated GE IF-200 truck cask. This test demonstrated that the cask could be breached — and that radioactive materials would be released. Current weapons, such as the Superdragon anti-tank missile, are more powerful and can penetrate 18 inches of armor plate. This weapon, used by the U.S. in Operation Desert Storm, has been sold by this country to at least 10 other nations.

Compounding the concerns about terrorism is the apparent official confusion as to who is responsible for safety and security in connection with these shipments. A spokesman for the N.C. Highway Patrol said that at the local level, their participation is limited to a backup role (being on call in the event of a mishap). “As far as any security information, that information is pretty much protected by federal statutes and guidelines,” explained Sgt. P.V. Staggs, the Highway Patrol’s chief public-information officer. In other words, the Highway Patrol is not in that information loop.

“The Highway Patrol is notified when any [plutonium] is moved through North Carolina,” Staggs told Xpress. “But they provide their own escorts and security. We would assist only if requested.”

But a DOE spokesperson at the Savannah River Site said the agency does not discuss information regarding security or transport of plutonium and that, contrary to Sgt. Staggs’ assertion, “They would not get any notification for plutonium.”

No one else contacted by Xpress at either the DOE or the NRC could provide any information about federal security-and-safety measures relating to the transport of plutonium. And a Nuclear Energy Institute pamphlet provides this less-than-reassuring information: “Local governments — and in some cases state agencies — have principal responsibility for first response in the event of a transportation accident involving used nuclear fuel.”

But if A says B is responsible, B won’t say anything, and C says A is responsible, then who’s minding the store?

And where does that leave citizens — the very ones most at risk — who can’t even get a straight answer about what could constitute a fatal threat to their health and well being?

Conference considers health issues

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service and other groups are holding a conference titled “Radiation Health in the Heartland” Friday and Saturday, Oct. 11-12 at UNCA’s Owen Conference Center. Noted author and nuclear-issues activist Dr. Helen Caldicott will deliver the keynote address: “The New Nuclear Danger,” Friday, Oct. 11, 7 p.m.

Caldicott has been an activist ever since — as a young mother and pediatrician in Australia — she became incensed by the radioactive fallout from French nuclear-weapons tests that was contaminating Australian rain. Caldicott instigated a campaign that halted atmospheric weapons tests in the South Pacific. She also helped to bring awareness of the concept of nuclear winter to presidents of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Her books include Nuclear Madness, Missile Envy and her newest title, The New Nuclear Danger.

Noted photographer Bob Del Tredici will speak before Caldicott. His published photo studies of the Nuclear Age include At Work in the Field of the Bomb and The People of Three Mile Island.

The conference starts Friday, Oct. 11 at 5 p.m. and continues on Saturday, Oct. 12, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., in UNCA’s Owen Conference Center.

For more information, see or call (828) 675-1792.

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