Report: Nuclear Waste Transport Poses Few Risks

A new National Academy of Sciences report finds that transportation accidents involving nuclear waste pose minimal risks. The academy recommends further study of scenarios involving long-duration fires or terrorist attack, and it points out another issue the government needs to address: public fear.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. A new report may provide some comfort to those worried about an accident involving a train or truck carrying nuclear waste. The National Academy of Sciences says the risk of anything coming out of a waste container is small. But it does recommend further studies to evaluate the risks of fire and terrorism.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Over the years, some three thousand canisters of nuclear waste have been shipped in the United States, largely without incident. But the number of trucks and trains carrying waste could increase dramatically in the future. The Department of Energy hopes to open a final repository in Nevada. The National Academy of Sciences decided that the transportation risks deserved an independent review. So it put together a committee. Kevin Crowley says they studied safety tests going back decades.

Mr. KEVIN CROWLEY (National Academy of Sciences): Some of those tests involved collisions of packages and locomotives moving at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour, and the committee's conclusion was that these packages are very robust, and that they would contain their contents in almost all credible accident conditions.

KESTENBAUM: Modern containers or casks way up to 25 tons and can cost a million dollars each. The waste, typically fuel rods, sit inside steel and concrete. So the containers can keep the waste inside, but about the radiation? What if someone stood right next to a container? Crowley says the Academy looked at that.

Mr. CROWLEY: This may come as surprise to some people, but the packages do not stop all of the radiation that is emitted by the spent fuel or high-level waste. Some radiation is able to penetrate the package, and somebody standing next to the package could receive an exposure.

KESTENBAUM: But not much. The Academy report says that if you worked at a rail stop where the canisters came through and stopped, in a year you might get the equivalent of a chest x-ray. The Academy did recommend further study in a couple of areas. One is long duration fires. In 2001, for instance, a train carrying hazardous materials caught fire in a Baltimore tunnel. It burned for days. The federal government has studied that accident and what it would mean for a train carrying nuclear waste. But the Academy says more work by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be a good idea.

Mr. CROWLEY: It might be difficult to mount an effective firefighting response in a tunnel fire. So what the committee is asking the commission to do is to look at, what are the thermal conditions that can result from these accidents? And if a spent fuel package is involved in one of those accidents, what would the consequences be?

KESTENBAUM: He says all indications are that any releases of radiation or radioactive material would be small. Finally, the Academy report recommends that before large shipments of waste take place, an independent group with security clearances should review the government's work on terrorism risks. It would increase public confidence and help guide research.

Earl Easton works for the government, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He says they've been looking at the threat of sabotage or terrorism for decades.

Mr. EARL EASTON (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): I believe that the NRC has a firm handle on this, and we understand how casks behave under certain threats. If additional security measures were needed, we have taken them. We've been looking at this since 1970. Most of the work done that I'm aware of after 2001 is basically reaffirmation of work done in the '70s and '80s, little more sophisticated, a little bit more detailed.

KESTENBAUM: The Academy reports cites one other problem the government will certainly face. It's nothing you can calculate. It's addressing the public's concern about waste. Joe Felini (ph) could get a lot of nuclear shipments by his ranch. He lives in Nevada, right by where the rail line would be built to carry waste the final miles to the repository. The rail like would break up his grazing land for cattle, and he thinks about terrorism, no matter what any official report says.

Mr. JOE FELINI (Resident, Nevada): They've got so dang much open area here, hell, they can go up one these canyons and they could sabotage one of those rail deals so dang easy I can't believe it, you know. I think it's just a real bad idea.

KESTENBAUM: The Academy says the government has to reach out and listen.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

NORRIS: You can read that report from the National Academy of Sciences at our website, NPR.org.

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