By MICHAEL GEBELEIN
A special report from Carolina Public Press and Mountain Xpress
The federal government’s plan to transport weapons-grade liquid nuclear waste through Western North Carolina may be on hold once a Washington, D.C., judge rules on a lawsuit from several regional environmental groups.
The parties to the lawsuit argued that the Department of Energy violated the National Environmental Policy Act by planning to transport nuclear waste in relative secrecy. The plaintiffs also accuse the government of justifying its proposal with a cursory and insufficient environmental impact study, based on outdated research.
Opponents of the shipments said this would be the first time that weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium in a liquid form has been transported in this way.
They warn that the government’s containers for the waste are untested and dangerous. The containers have only previously transported solid nuclear waste.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit wrote that, in the “worst-case circumstances” like a breach of one of the containers because of an accident during the journey, the waste could become agitated and fission might occur, leading to extremely high temperatures that could rupture the tanks, spilling nuclear waste onto the ground or into a water system.
The lawsuit said the Canadian government will pay the Department of Energy $60 million as part of the proposal, to help maintain U.S. nuclear storage facilities.
The Chalk River Laboratories power plant in Ottawa, Canada, created the waste during its production of medical isotopes for use in diagnostic tests.
The shipments would be bound for the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site nuclear facility near Aiken, S.C. — a journey of more than 1,000 miles.
The Department of Energy published a report in 2015 claiming that the “potential environmental impacts” of transporting the nuclear waste would be “very low” and that no “radiological or nonradiological fatalities” would be expected should trucks carrying the nuclear waste travel from Chalk River to the Savannah River Site.
But the report relied on citations from articles that are nearly 20 years old to make its case, activists have complained.
The government also argued that the change in the state of the nuclear waste, from a solid to a liquid, makes little impact on the safety issues associated with transporting it.
Based upon those determinations, the Department of Energy argued, the law doesn’t require an environmental impact study. However, activists said flaws in the government’s studies and the lack of public input violate federal regulations.
A federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia heard oral arguments in the case in Washington on Wednesday, though she made no ruling at that time.
Canadian nuclear expert Gordon Edwards testified that less than 2 ounces of this material would be enough to render 510 million liters of water undrinkable under current Environmental Protection Agency regulations, according to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service’s Asheville office, which opposes the plan.
That would represent “a tiny fraction of the 242 liters in each of the 100-150 truckloads from Chalk River to the Savannah River Site,” Edwards said.
Despite the litigation, there’s already a chance that the shipments could bypass Asheville entirely.
The most direct route from Chalk River to Aiken is south on Interstate 81 through Syracuse, N.Y., to Fort Chiswell, Va., and south on Interstate 77 through Charlotte to Columbia, S.C., and west on Interstate 20 to Aiken. The trucks could also take Interstate 95 through Washington to Interstate 20 in Florence, S.C., or Interstate 79 through Pittsburgh to Interstate 77 in Virginia.
Local activists say federal regulations will prohibit the shipments from passing through a large population center like Charlotte, meaning the nuclear waste might have to pass through Asheville on Interstate 26.
Federal officials don’t make the routes of trucks carrying nuclear waste public knowledge.
What’s at stake
If the federal courts do side with the plaintiffs and order a new impact study, the victory for environmental advocates could be hollow.
The result might be only a delay in the project while the study is performed, if the study finds that the risk associated with transporting this type of nuclear waste is minimal.
However, the groups opposing the plan hope that a new study will instead find that the nuclear waste is too dangerous to move, according to Sierra Club Wenoca chapter Vice Chair Maryanne Rackoff.
The shipments, of which there could be more than 150, would each be carrying almost 60 gallons of liquid isotopes of iodine, plutonium, cesium and strontium, “and other dangerous products that must be kept from becoming airborne or waterborne,” according to a letter several WNC environmental advocacy groups sent to Gov. Roy Cooper.
Those materials also include small amounts of the highly enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons, the letter noted. The Energy Department would ship the waste in four 15-gallon containers inside a larger steel crate.
The groups that contacted Cooper’s office on Jan. 11 to request that he also demand a new environmental impact study from the federal government included the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Clean Water for NC and MountainTrue.
The signatories to the letter argued that a spill or accident would devastate both the environment and the region’s economy.
“As you know, the WNC economy is heavily tied to our local food and beverage production, and the status of the mountains as a place for health,” the letter said.
“A nuclear accident in this area could decimate the economy based on health and visitors seeking outdoor recreation.
“Nonetheless, the release of even a tiny portion of the waste on one of these hundred-plus shipments could mean a very expensive, likely disruptive statewide outcome for North Carolina, let alone personal harm to health or property of individuals.”
As of press time, Cooper’s office had not responded to the letter.
Having a newly elected governor’s input could help convince the judge that the situation requires a new environmental study, Rackoff said in an interview for this article.
“Cooper could intervene as a party plaintiff and oppose the shipments based on their unprecedented format of transportation,” she explained.
“Those would be heavy boots that would jump into the litigation. … Tourism is our central commodity. It’s a beautiful area, and we all want to protect North Carolina and the mountains.”
Asheville City Council also plans to pass a resolution against the transport of nuclear waste through the city, Rackoff said.
Julie Mayfield, an Asheville Council member and the co-director of MountainTrue, will introduce the council’s resolution, according to Rackoff.
The activists are also approaching Buncombe County commissioners, asking them to take a similar public stance.
Editor’s note: this article was updated at 10:24 a.m. on Jan. 25 to reflect Maryanne Rackoff’s role with the Sierra Club Wenoca Chapter; she is vice chair.