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Highly Radioactive Nuclear Reactor Shipment Heading From Michigan to South Carolina

Nuclear Information and Resource Service * Public Citizen

Oct. 8, 2003

Highly Radioactive Nuclear Reactor Shipment Heading From Michigan to South Carolina

WASHINGTON, D.C. – With little public notice and short notification to emergency responders, nuclear energy officials early Tuesday began moving a highly radioactive reactor vessel from northern Michigan to South Carolina. The shipment has already run into trouble, indicating the folly of the government’s plan to ship thousands of containers of nuclear waste throughout the country to a storage facility in Nevada.

The vessel is being moved from the Big Rock Point nuclear power plant near Charlevoix in northern Michigan. It will likely be shipped via rail through parts of western Ohio, central and eastern Kentucky, western West Virginia, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and western South Carolina to a radioactive waste dump in Barnwell, S.C. It began its journey at 3 a.m. Tuesday.

Although it has been dismantled, the vessel is highly radioactive due to 35 years of nuclear chain reactions (which made the metal of the reactor vessel itself radioactive) and radioactive contamination from experimental plutonium fuel rods that ruptured within it. Now, it is emitting 10 millirems per hour of radiation (equivalent to one chest X-ray), according to a spokesman for Consumer’s Energy, the reactor’s owner. U.S. Department of Transportation regulations allow radiation to be released at a rate of up to 5 rems in 30 minutes in accident conditions; that is equivalent to 500 chest X-rays. The 282-ton reactor vessel will travel by truck and train before reaching its burial site.

The reactor is on a heavy haul truck, which has 18 axles and will travel a maximum of 5 miles per hour. It went from Charlevoix through Petoskey on US 31, then south down the 131 Expressway to State Route 32, and will go east to Gaylord. Already, half an axle broke and four tires have been removed, according to the Consumer’s Energy spokesman.

“Officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s hazardous materials office had not even heard about the shipment as recently as yesterday. The public and emergency responders deserve to know about radioactive waste shipments for their own safety,” said Kevin Kamps, nuclear waste specialist with Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS).

The reactor will be parked overnight tonight at a truck stop 75-100 yards from a gas station that also serves as a children’s school bus stop, according to Consumer’s Energy.

“If customers or those children get close enough to the shipping container, they would receive a greater than zero dose of radiation,” Kamps said. “This shipment is like a mobile X-ray machine that cannot be turned off rolling down the road. Parking this radioactive cargo near flammable and explosive gasoline, as well as near a children’s bus stop, is a remarkable oversight.”

The shipment highlights the dangers of the government’s plan to move nuclear waste from sites throughout the country to a proposed storage dump in Nevada at Yucca Mountain, said Brendan Hoffman, an organizer with Public Citizen.

“For the sake of the public and police and firefighters everywhere, the government should abandon its plans to make thousands of shipments of nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain,” Hoffman said.

“The big question is, have local emergency responders along all the routes been notified of this shipment, and are they trained and equipped to deal with an accidental radiation release?” said Terry Lodge, a longtime Toledo activist against nuclear power.

Before today, only three irradiated commercial nuclear power reactor pressure vessels have been shipped for burial in the United States. A fourth, long-delayed California reactor vessel shipment shows how irradiated reactor vessels are political hot potatoes; due to local resistance and deteriorated railroad tracks near the San Onofre nuclear power plant in southern California, the nuclear utility decided to ship the reactor vessel by boat through the Panama Canal to get it to the Barnwell, South Carolina dump.

But Panama rejected the proposal. The current proposal is to ship the vessel around the world, across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, to the Port of Charleston, South Carolina. But resistance to the shipment is brewing there as well.