Radioactive roadtrip

Sunday, July 28, 2002

With Nevada's Yucca Mountain named the official repository for nuclear waste, transportation safety becomes a hot issue.By Scott Moyers

and Tammy Raddle ~ Southeast Missourian

Yucca Mountain is a long way from Southeast Missouri, but a government plan to send high-level nuclear waste there using America's roadways and railways would make Missouri a crossroads for thousands of shipments of the highly radioactive material

It may come within 35 miles of Cape Girardeau.

Interstate 70 would be a route to get the material across Missouri and to the mountain, but I-55 and the local railway aren't on the proposed routes. The closest route for transport near Cape Girardeau is along I-57 and I-24 in southern Illinois.

That has some area residents anxious.

"I am concerned," said Marie James of Cape Girardeau. "But I really don't know what can be done about it. This is such a widespread problem. It's not just Cape Girardeau that will be affected by this, but really most of the country."

Main repository

Last week, after two decades of study and ardent protests from Nevada, President George W. Bush signed a bill making Yucca Mountain the central U.S. repository for nuclear waste.

The House and Senate voted earlier this year to entomb thousands of tons of radioactive waste inside Yucca Mountain in the desert some 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Currently, the material is stored on site at nuclear plants like the one in Fulton, Mo.

While the government insists it's safe, opponents -- including Sen. Jean Carnahan and a handful of environmental groups -- said that shipping 77,000 tons of waste by highway and rail through 44 states would create a target for terrorists and put lives at risk if accidents happen.

"Our biggest concern is for Nevada," said Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Las Vegas-based Citizen Alert. "But we recognize this nuclear waste isn't going to just magically appear in Nevada. It's going to come from somewhere and has to be transported. We know people probably don't want it transported through their neighborhoods as much as we don't want it stored here."

Johnson and others stress that highway and railway accidents occur every day. She questions adding transported nuclear waste to the mix of cars, trucks and trains.

"It doesn't even really make sense," Johnson said. "This is nuclear waste. Why start shipping it on highways full of people?"

Safe transport

But Walt Lilly, a biology professor and the radiation safety officer for Southeast Missouri State University, said such slogans suggesting the project could lead to a "mobile Chernobyl" are ridiculous.

"It's ludicrous," he said. "It would take targeting a nuclear weapon at that material to spread it like it did at Chernobyl. I think people are tremendously overconcerned about that."

Lilly, who has received training regarding transporting radioactive material, said he doesn't have any concerns about the project.

"The containers that the material would be shipped in are designed to withstand a wreck," Lilly said. "I'd be a lot more concerned about gas tankers than a shipment of radioactive material. You have to be careful, obviously, but that's why there's so many regulations in the use and transport of this material. People are alarmed way out of line in terms of the actual risk."

Lilly said having all the waste at one site would make it easier to maintain inventory and control the environment surrounding the waste. Currently there are 131 locations where nuclear waste is stored.

"I would not be worried at all," he said. "My guess is with the current terrorist threat, the shipments will be so well protected, the safest place you could be is riding in the boxcar with it," he said.

Emergency management director for Cape Girardeau County Dave Hitt agreed.

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "I've seen some of the precautions that they take, and I feel Cape Girardeau would not be affected by it. We're not talking about nuclear bombs. We're talking about waste that needs to be disposed of."

Close to home

Some residents said they're worried the waste will be shipped close to their homes, schools and businesses.

George Galeener lives in the Metropolis, Ill., area, only one mile from I-24. He said he is concerned about the movement of nuclear waste so close to his home, but he doubts that anything can be done about it.

"When you're dealing with the federal government, there is not a lot you can do," he said. "They are going to do what they are going to do. Nevada doesn't want the nuclear waste, but it looks like it's going there, anyway," Galeener said. He said, since I-24 is one of the few interstate routes coming from the south, shipping routes choices are limited.

Jerry Siemers, a Cape Girardeau dairy farmer, believes people do not realize how much hazardous waste is already shipped on the nation's highways. He does not see the shipment of nuclear waste as a different issue.

"I don't worry about this too much, because there is already so much toxic waste being shipped," Siemers said. He noted, as a volunteer fireman, he's received training on how to handle accidents involving hazardous chemicals. So far, he's never had to use that training.

"It's really easy for people to come up with doomsday scenarios, but the truth is that all of us are more likely to be killed driving to work tomorrow than we are to be injured or killed in an accident involving nuclear waste," Siemers said. "I won't lose any sleep over this."

Gayle Fisher, a public affairs officer with the Department of Energy's Yucca Mountain project, said that the president's decision allows them to get started on licensing the $58 billion project, a process expected to take about three years to complete. Shipments aren't expected to start until 2010.

Fisher reiterated that the project is safe: "Our general response is: If we didn't believe we could do it safely, we wouldn't be doing it."

335-6611, extension 137

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