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Citizen Groups Denounce Proposal for High-Level Nuclear Waste Transport Through New Mexico

May 21, 2001

Citizen Groups Denounce Proposal for High-Level Nuclear Waste Transport Through New Mexico

Survey Shows Cause for Concern

SANTA FE, N.M. A proposal to transport high-level nuclear waste through New Mexico to Nevada for permanent storage could pose serious threats to public health, the environment and the economy in the event of a crash or a radiation leak, citizen groups said today.

Public interest groups, concerned citizens, and state agency representatives held a news conference today in front of the State Capitol to call attention to the dangers associated with transporting high-level radioactive waste through New Mexico. A public workshop on the topic of high-level waste transportation will be held today from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. in the La Farge Library Community Room (1730 Llano St., Santa Fe).

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is preparing to recommend Yucca Mountain, located near Las Vegas, Nev., as a permanent repository for high-level radioactive waste generated by atomic weapons facilities and commercial nuclear reactors across the country.

“Congress is under immense pressure from the nuclear power industry to approve a dump at Yucca Mountain,” said Joni Arends, waste programs director with Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS). “From our experience with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, we are all too familiar with geologic, safety and transportation problems associated with this type of DOE project.”

DOE has refused to specify which routes would be used to ship high-level waste toYucca Mountain. However, potential routes evaluated in a draft Environmental Impact Statement include I-40 and I-10 through New Mexico, as well as rail lines. An analysis prepared by the Clark County Comprehensive Planning Division in Nevada found that the waste would have to travel through 734 counties with a total population of 138 million people.

Against the backdrop of a full-sized inflatable model of a nuclear waste transport cask, participants at today s news conference raised concerns about the safety of transporting radioactive waste. DOE risk analysis data indicate that between 70 and 310 accidents could be expected involving waste shipments to Nevada.

Lisa Gue, policy analyst for Public Citizen, explained that the transport casks never have been subjected to full-scale physical testing. Rather, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission relies on computer modeling to predict how the casks would perform in the event of an accident. Even without an accident, the high-level nuclear waste shipments would routinely emit radiation equivalent to one chest X-ray per hour.

Also today, CCNS and the New Mexico Department of Health released the results of a survey of emergency response personnel along the north-south route to another DOE disposal site for nuclear weapons waste, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The survey found that 75 percent of the personnel were from volunteer services. Seventy-five percent of the total surveyed said they did not have adequate equipment for handling an incident involving hazardous or radioactive materials, while 72 percent felt inadequately trained to handle a radioactively contaminated patient. The survey and results will be published today at www.nuclearactive.org.

“We hope the results of the survey will provide a stimulus for emergency responder volunteers to attend the various on-going, free trainings provided by the State of New Mexico,” said Bill Mackie, coordinator of the New Mexico Radioactive Waste Consultation Task Force.

“There is no practical way to insure that hospitals, police and rescue personnel will have the capacity to effectively respond to radiological emergencies in communities along both the WIPP and Yucca Mountain shipment routes through New Mexico,” said Arends. “Our survey results show that the emergency responders need more training, equipment, and written policies and procedures,”

Transportation hazards are not the only risks associated with the proposal to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. The site itself is unsuitable, and DOE repository designs rely on the integrity of engineered storage canisters to contain the highly radioactive waste. Scientists in Nevada have pointed to the danger of groundwater contamination if these canisters leak, since the proposed repository would sit atop an aquifer. In addition to gradual corrosion and degradation of the storage canisters, an earthquake could cause them to break open. The chance of an earthquake occurring is far from remote; Nevada ranks third in the country for seismic activity.

“The proposal to build a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain does not address the nuclear waste problem,” Gue said. “It merely transfers the risk to the state of Nevada and communities that are unlucky enough to be located along nuclear waste transportation routes. The only way to solve the nuclear waste problem is to stop generating it.”

The event was held as part of the Radioactive Roads and Rails Campaign, a national project of Public Citizen and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), sponsored in Santa Fe by CCNS and Peace Action New Mexico.