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New GAO Report on Nuclear Waste Transport Risks Fails to Address Key Problems With Yucca Mountain Scheme

Aug. 14, 2003

New GAO Report on Nuclear Waste Transport Risks Fails to Address Key Problems With Yucca Mountain Scheme


Statement of Lisa Gue, Senior Energy Analyst, Public Citizen’sCritical Mass Energy and Environment Program

The public shouldn’t be fooled if they see U.S. Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) waving a new report and claiming that it shows that nuclear waste transport is safe. In fact, the two lawmakers, who requested the report from the General Accounting Office (GAO), set parameters that blocked the GAO from properly addressing the viability of transporting nuclear waste across the country.

The GAO report concludes that the risk of an accident during nuclear waste transport is low and that even if an accident or terrorist attack were to occur, the potential for widespread harm is low. Still, the GAO characterizes irradiated nuclear fuel as “one of the most hazardous materials made by man” and recommends that shipments be minimized.

The report recaps old studies and ignores critical problems with the transportation of nuclear waste that will arise if a national nuclear waste dump is built in Nevada as planned. This is just what Tauzin and Barton ordered. It is no surprise that the two lawmakers have consistently voted to support the building of new nuclear reactors, which will generate more radioactive waste.

What shouldn’t be overlooked is that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) relies on computer simulations and educated guesses to predict what will happen to transport casks in an accident or attack. This is inadequate. Real-world testing is needed because casks may not perform as designed. Recent experience with other unlikely events – the collapse of the World Trade Center, which was designed not to collapse, and the failure of components on the Columbia space shuttle that were designed to never fail – suggest that an accident or attack on a nuclear waste shipment could be far more devastating than predicted.

Even the GAO admits in the report that it did not assess the reliability of the data or the methodologies used in the studies it reviewed. Nor did the agency examine the economic or broader environmental effects of terrorist attacks or severe accidents involving nuclear waste transportation.

Shipping waste to Yucca Mountain will not mean that all waste is in one spot, as Tauzin and Barton claim; nuclear waste must cool on site at reactors for at least five years before being moved. If Tauzin and Barton were serious about reducing security risks, they would stop pushing for new nuclear power plants and the irreparably flawed Yucca Mountain proposal and instead lead efforts to improve safety and security at existing nuclear sites and promote safer, cleaner energy alternatives.