Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste site spells trouble for WNC

Interstate 65 south of Nashville was shut down for several hours on March 15 after a tractor-trailer overturned. According to the Tennessee Highway Patrol, a double tractor-trailer carrying radioactive medical waste hit a bridge and guard rail before overturning next to I-65, resulting in a radioactive-waste spill.

Emergency-management personnel reported that the load contained low-level nuclear medical material posing no immediate danger to either people or the environment. Maury County officials say they’re relieved to have dodged what could have been a major disaster. With no immediate hazard, the road was reopened after about eight hours.

Earlier this month, more than 130 people from our community shared concerns with Sen. John Edwards about the proposed plan to use Yucca Mountain, Nev., as a nuclear-waste storage site and the many implications for those of us living in the Nuclear Heartland of the southeastern United States.

First of all, we pointed out in our letter to Sen. Edwards that the site’s approval would authorize transportation of nuclear wastes from nuclear-power plants throughout the United States to Nevada by road and rail, creating a so-called “Mobile Chernobyl.” The result would be thousands of shipments of these hazardous materials over several decades, some of them coming from the dozen nuclear reactors in the Carolinas and passing over interstate highways close to population centers — including us. With thousands of shipments, accidents will happen.

Although tests have been conducted to show how safe nuclear-waste shipping containers are, the tests have not taken into consideration real-world high speeds and other severe forces that can lead to accidents. Fire tests are overly optimistic, and no crush tests have been performed. So the risk exists for disastrous accidents in locations such as I-26 or I-40 in Asheville, in the Pigeon River Gorge (where so many trucks have crashed in recent years), and on the hazardous Saluda Grade (the steepest rail grade in the U.S.), with the resulting release of deadly radiation dispersed by fire and/or wind.

Further, the argument that a central waste site would “put all the nuclear waste in one place for security” is false. High-level nuclear waste must be stored in liquid, on site, for at least five years after removal from the reactor core in order for it to cool. Thus, each reactor site will remain a waste repository for at least five years after it is closed. And an emergency at any of these reactor sites could create a catastrophe. Furthermore, each of the thousands of shipments over the next 20 to 30 years would constitute a giant “dirty bomb” if detonated by accident or terrorism. Such shipments would pass through many North Carolina urban centers, small towns, and agricultural and tourist areas.

Compounding the irony of it all is the fact that the Yucca Mountain site doesn’t even meet the government’s original standards for permanent disposal. The standards were changed after serious flaws were disclosed — such as that the site is prone to volcanic activity and is crisscrossed by fault lines.

We asked Sen. Edwards to reject the Yucca Mountain site and work to develop a more favorable solution for disposing of nuclear wastes.

Although (thankfully!) the recent nuclear-waste accident in Tennessee was not serious, it still sounded a warning. Because if the faulty Yucca Mountain storage site is activated, thousands of truckloads of high-level nuclear materials are projected to be shipped over our interstate highways for decades to come. Accidents will happen, and the risk of terrorist activity will exist. Living in the Nuclear Heartland — with I-40 and I-26 intersecting, with I-26 soon to connect to I-81 heading northeast, and with the very real potential for rail disasters on the infamous Saluda Grade — we are at great risk.

President Bush has already approved the Yucca site. Only the Senate has the power to stop it now. Our last resort in preventing this debacle is to influence Sen. Edwards’ potential swing vote. Let’s join forces in urging him to oppose the Yucca Mountain site.

[Lewis E. Patrie, M.D., is president of the WNC chapter of the national organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, which shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He also serves on the WNC Regional Air Quality Board.[

[Sen. John Edwards can be contacted in his Raleigh office at (202) 224-1545, or visit his Web site (http://edwards.senate.gov) to post an e-mail.]

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