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Groups Ask North Carolina Attorney General to Investigate Contaminated Nuclear Shipment

Aug. 6, 2003

Groups Ask North Carolina Attorney General to Investigate Contaminated Nuclear Shipment

DURHAM, N.C. – Two public interest groups today called for a state investigation into the circumstances surrounding radioactive contamination discovered on a nuclear waste shipping container at Progress Energy’s Shearon Harris reactor.

A brief U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “event notice” initially reported “surface contamination levels above limits” on an irradiated nuclear fuel shipping cask at the Harris plant on July 29. A July 31 update specified that contamination levels were nearly double the allowable limits set by the NRC and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Few other details about the incident have been publicly released.

In a letter to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, Public Citizen and the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN) wrote that it is unacceptable for the NRC to withhold information from the public about surface contamination of a container.

“We respectfully request that you initiate a thorough investigation of this incident and its health and safety implications,” the groups wrote.

The contaminated shipment likely originated at Progress Energy’s Brunswick or Robinson nuclear stations and passed through many communities en route to Shearon Harris, where the contamination was detected and reported. Radiation levels at the point of origin and during transport could have been even higher than the final measurements reported to the NRC because some radioactive materials decay quickly and could have been “hotter” at the beginning of the trip. Also, when taking samples, inspectors may have missed the hottest spots of the truck. Railroad and utility workers and members of the public near this shipment at the point of origin and en route may not have been adequately protected or notified, the groups said.

Progress Energy routinely transports irradiated nuclear fuel from its Brunswick and Robinson plants to the Shearon Harris facility. Shipments of high-level nuclear waste travel by rail through North Carolina almost monthly, passing through many communities, including Sanford and Southern Pines and near Fort Bragg. These shipments have been the subject of increasing public concern, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the utility has said it intends to cease shipments by 2005. Public safety advocates have called for an immediate stop to the nuclear trains.

“We’ve repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of Progress Energy’s nuclear shipments,” said Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN. “This latest incident clearly demonstrates the unacceptable health and safety threats that these ongoing monthly transports to Shearon Harris impose on our communities.”

Currently, North Carolina is the only place in the U.S. where high-level radioactive waste is routinely transported. However, government plans for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. – and a companion industry proposal for “interim storage” at Skull Valley, Utah – could launch unprecedented cross-country nuclear shipping in the future.

“If Progress Energy can’t keep the casks clean now in its relatively small-scale shipping campaign, what assurances are there that similar contamination incidents would not be routine if tens of thousands of nuclear shipments start moving to Utah or Nevada?” asked Lisa Gue, senior energy analyst with Public Citizen, a public interest organization based in Washington, D.C.

The groups expressed concern that last week’s contamination incident may indicate a general breakdown in Progress Energy’s safety protocols.

“Given that Progress Energy failed to detect contamination on this shipment at the point of origin, how many other contaminated shipments are slipping through the company’s detection system?” they asked in the letter.

The groups pressed for immediate action from the state attorney general, who has constitutional and statutory authority over Progress Energy’s corporate charter. “The NRC’s secrecy in this matter is another reason why we again urge you to use your authority to protect the people of North Carolina. High-level nuclear waste shipments and the vulnerabilities of high-density fuel pools where this waste is stored impose untenable risks on our communities,” they wrote.

An investigation is needed because prior experience indicates a larger problem could exist. According to the World Information Service on Energy, an investigation into a similar instance of contamination detected on a shipment of irradiated fuel at a French nuclear reprocessing plant in December 1997 led to the discovery that 35 percent of the shipments made by the French utility EDS to the reprocessing facility in that year were contaminated at above legal limits. In response, nuclear shipments in much of Western Europe were suspended.

Click here to view the letter to Attorney General Cooper.

Click here to view the NRC event notice.