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N-waste to come through Utah

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Sometime this summer, officials won't say exactly when, rail shipments of highly radioactive waste will begin moving into Utah. And it will have nothing to do with the high-level radioactive waste site proposed for Skull Valley on the Goshute Indian Reservation west of Salt Lake City.

Instead, this particular waste from nuclear reactors is bound for the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) near Idaho Falls where it will be added to a catalog of nuclear wastes that combine to make that site one of the largest nuclear waste dumps in America."It's no secret and no surprise to anyone that it's coming here," said U.S. Department of Energy spokesman Brad Bugger. Nor is it any secret spent fuel rods - the most lethal of all nuclear wastes - have been coming to INEEL for years and that transportation routes from California routinely take the waste through the middle of the Wasatch Front.

But if you didn't know these shipments have happened, or that they will be resuming this summer, you're not alone.

Outside of a handful of state officials who are informed of the Department of Energy shipments, the department's policy has generally been if you don't ask then, they certainly aren't eager to tell.

The U.S. Navy, which also ships the radioactive waste generated by its nuclear submarines and surface ships to INEEL, simply won't tell.

"On almost all of the DOE shipments, the state is notified," said Utah state science adviser Suzanne Winters. "However, we worked for nearly 18 months to get the Navy to notify the state of its shipments and they refused."

That is why Utah entered into an agreement with Idaho, which had already gone to federal court to force the Navy to notify state officials there of the shipments. Idaho now informs Utah officials of all Navy shipments passing through Utah on their way to INEEL.

The regular shipment of nuclear waste presents a conundrum for state officials. One of the state's chief arguments for opposing a nuclear waste storage site at Skull Valley are the public safety concerns related to the transportation of the waste through heavily populated areas.

At a recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing on the Go-shute plan, state officials presented a litany of safety concerns ranging from terrorist attacks on shipments to increased health costs to the inadequacy of the steel casks used to transport the spent nuclear fuel rods. Theoretically, concerns over the transportation of commercial nuclear waste should be no different than the transportation of identical government waste.

But at no time during the hearing did state officials mention that nuclear waste is already moving through the state, that the Department of Energy already trains state and local officials in emergency response to accidents involving nuclear waste or that nuclear waste has been shipped for decades with no serious accident or injury.

At least 85 military shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been transported through Utah by rail in recent years. Commercial shipments on I-80 by truck have occurred as recently as last fall. The Department of Energy has shipped through the state regularly by both rail and truck.

The bottom line, DOE officials maintain, is that transportation of nuclear waste has a proven safety record. In fact, it is many times safer than the transportation of billions of tons of hazardous materials that are now moved on the nation's highways and rails every year.

And, they maintain, Utah officials know it is safe. "We have a very close working relationship with the emergency response people in Utah," said Rick Fawcett, a transportation program manager at INEEL.

Not just passing through

Winters agrees, but she points out there is a huge difference between occasional shipments to INEEL where 256 metric tons of of high-level nuclear waste are currently stored and the potential transport of 40,000 metric tons of commercial nuclear waste to Skull Valley.

She agrees the Department of Energy works closely with the state on waste shipment issues.

"We have been working under a grant from the Department of Energy to develop protocols and to provide training to hospital personnel and firefighters and everyone along the corridor who would be involved. At this point, I am comfortable Utahns are not at risk (from the DOE shipments)."

However, Winters said she cannot and will not make the same statement if 40,000 metric tons of nuclear waste were to be shipped to Utah for storage.

The consortium of nuclear power utilities that wants to ship the waste to Utah has provided the state virtually no details on its transportation or security plans, she said. Consequently, there is no way to assure the public there are no health or safety risks, Winters said.

The amount of Department of Energy nuclear waste that will pass through Utah in the months and years ahead is minuscule by comparison with the amount that could end up at Skull Valley. Bugger estimates that only about 5 metric tons of waste generated by foreign research reactors will be shipped through Utah to INEEL for temporary storage.

Atoms for Peace

Those shipments are the result of the Atoms for Peace program initiated by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. Nuclear reactors were built in 41 foreign countries with the promise the United States would accept the spent fuel rods at the end of the program. That program will have generated about 20 tons of nuclear waste by the time the last shipments are completed in 2009.

Most of spent fuel that will be coming through Utah is from Pacific Rim countries like Indonesia, Taiwan and the Phillipines. The first shipment of three casks, scheduled for later this summer, will come from South Korea. The next shipments will come from Germany, Romania and Slovenia, although those will be transported first to Savannah, S.C., and then west by rail, probably through Wyoming instead of Utah.

Under a recent federal policy, INEEL will store all nuclear wastes contained in stainless steel canisters. The Savannah River site will accept all nuclear wastes contained in aluminum canisters. A total of 61 casks will be shipped with each cask holding 140 fuel rods.

Current plans call for Department of Energy technicians to inspect the foreign fuel rods at the reactor site and to load and seal the rods in a transportation cask. After arriving at the shipyard, the cask is lowered into a cradle that is buffered with "impact limiters" that act like car bumpers.

The cask is loaded into a shipping container that meets international standards for nuclear waste and is then lifted into a double-hulled ship that will carry no other cargo besides the waste. Ships from Asia will sail for the Concord Naval Weapons Station near San Francisco, while European shipments will go to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station in South Carolina.

Upon arrival, the seals are inspected and radiation levels are measured to ensure no leaking or tampering has occurred since loading.

After inspection by federal and state regulators, the cargo is then loaded onto flatbed train cars. The shipments from San Francisco will all pass through Nevada and Utah on their way to INEEL (the waste in aluminum containers will continue on to Savannah River). The train, which travels at 10 mph below the posted limit in most cases, is tracked by satellite and carries armed security at all times. Those on the train are in constant contact with public safety officials from every state through which the train passes.

Upon arrival at INEEL, Idaho regulators are present when Department of Energy officials verify the radiation levels are the same as when the train left California. The seals are broken and the casks are then moved to storage racks where they will remain until a permanent nuclear waste storage facility is opened (no such facility has yet been built, although studies are being conducted at Yucca Mountain in Nevada where a site could be opened by 2010).

"Routine" shipments

INEEL officials call the transportation of nuclear waste "routine," noting the redundancy of safety and security measures makes it extremely unlikely a catastrophic accident would occur. They place the chances that an accident would release radioactivity at about one in 10 million.

As a whole, the industry is fond of boasting there have been more than 2,400 shipments of nuclear waste over the past 40 years without an accident that released radioactivity.

But accidents can happen. "I've been told by the folks in California that that statement (about 2,400 radioactive-free shipments) is no longer true," Bugger said.

INEEL officials say Utah authorities should be cautious, but that caution should be tempered with the realization that nuclear waste can and has been moved safely. And given nuclear waste will be moving through the state, the most prudent approach is a combination of education and training in the event something does happen.

That more waste will rumble through Utah is inevitable. Under an agreement between the state of Idaho and the federal government, the Department of Energy must remove all of the nuclear waste at INEEL by 2035. And if the permanent storage site is eventually located at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, as most agree it will be, then all of the nuclear waste at INEEL will again be transported through Utah on its way south.

On top of that, the U.S. Navy will be sending up to 575 shipments totally 55 metric tons of nuclear waste to INEEL where it is building a new dry-cask storage facility. Some of the waste may come through Utah, but most will probably come from the Pacific Northwest (the Navy is not currently shipping nuclear waste through Utah).

Like the other nuclear wastes at INEEL, the Navy's waste must be removed by 2035, probably through Utah to Yucca Mountain.

"The only way from San Francisco or Los Angeles to INEEL is through Ogden or Salt Lake City," Bugger said. "The only way from here (INEEL) to there (Yucca Mountain) is through Ogden or Salt Lake City. There is just no way around it."

Tomorrow: INEEL has become one of the nation's largest nuclear waste dumps, and officials there have been largely unsuccessful in their efforts to stop it - a sobering lesson to Utah officials trying to stop a similar dump at Skull Valley.