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New Proposal to Test Safety of Nuclear Waste Transportation Containers Meets with Skepticism

Citizen Action/Illinois * Nuclear Energy Information Service * Physicians for Social Responsibility/Chicago * Nuclear Information and Resource Service * Public Citizen

March 18, 2003

New Proposal to Test Safety of Nuclear Waste Transportation Containers Meets with Skepticism


Groups Urge NRC to Strengthen Cask Testing Program


CHICAGO – The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) proposal for limited testing of nuclear waste transportation casks does not go far enough, public interest organizations said today. The groups held a press conference today in downtown Chicago and will deliver comments Wednesday at an NRC meeting in Rosemont.

“Tens of thousands of deadly high-level radioactive waste shipments could pass through Chicago en route to the proposed nuclear waste dump at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain and ‘Private Fuel Storage’ facility at Skull Valley, Utah,” said Bruch Reed, board member of the Nuclear Energy Information Service. “We need the NRC to take our safety concerns seriously and institute a more rigorous program for testing nuclear waste transportation containers.”

The NRC is responsible for evaluating license applications for the Yucca Mountain dump and the Private Fuel Storage project (a nuclear waste facility proposed by a private consortium), as well as the casks used to transport high-level nuclear waste to the dumps. Current NRC regulations do not require casks to be physically tested. The agency relies mainly on computer modeling in its licensing process. The new proposal, called the Package Performance Study, would subject just two of the 16 licensed designs to crash tests and fire tests.

“It is encouraging that the NRC has finally recognized the need for physical testing of nuclear waste transportation casks, but the NRC testing proposal fails to actually demonstrate cask safety,” said Bob Halstead, of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects. “The NRC’s primary concern is testing casks to demonstrate the accuracy of their computer models. Instead, they should be testing every cask design to demonstrate compliance with safety regulations. Beyond that, the agency should test casks to failure, to determine the adequacy of safety regulations.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) environmental impact statement, Illinois will be heavily impacted by transportation of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain. In addition to shipments from Illinois reactors, the state would be traversed by shipments from almost all the commercial reactors east of the Mississippi River, plus shipments from DOE facilities in New York and South Carolina.

During the first 24 years of Yucca Mountain’s operations, the DOE would make either 8,000 rail and truck shipments or 39,000 truck shipments through Illinois. Over 38 years, the DOE could make either 16,000 rail and truck shipments or more than 69,000 truck shipments, through the state.

The DOE’s proposal to ship spent fuel by barge on Lake Michigan also would affect Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Because the Kewaunee, Point Beach and Palisades reactor sites lack rail access, DOE has proposed shipping large rail casks by barge from these sites into the Ports of Milwaukee and Muskegon. After being transferred to rail cars, these casks would travel through Illinois by train. The DOE could make up to 431 barge shipments on Lake Michigan over 38 years.


“I’m astounded that the NRC has not included submersion testing in its proposal, given that the Department of Energy is considering hundreds of barge shipments on the Great Lakes if the Yucca Mountain Project moves forward,” said Kevin Kamps, nuclear waste specialist with Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “Moreover, the NRC’s study would also ignore cask vulnerabilities to a terrorist attack.”

Independent analyses have indicated that an attack on a nuclear waste convoy could release lethal doses of radiation.

“The Yucca Mountain and Private Fuel Storage projects would involve unprecedented nuclear shipping campaigns. How can the NRC consider licensing these projects without thoroughly evaluating the vulnerabilities of nuclear waste transportation casks?” asked Lisa Gue, senior energy analyst with Public Citizen. “The proposed study does not go nearly far enough to address the concerns of communities along transportation routes,” she concluded.

To discuss these issues further, the groups will host a public workshop and forum tonight, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the offices of Nuclear Energy Information Service, at 845 Chicago, Suite 207, Evanston, Ill., across from the Main St. Station on the CTA Purple Line.