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Public Interest Groups Criticize Handling of Recent Nuclear Waste Shipment from Western New York to Idaho

i haveAug. 11, 2003

Public Interest Groups Criticize Handling of Recent Nuclear Waste Shipment from Western New York to Idaho


Secret Nuclear Shipment Endangered Local Communities

ASHFORD, N.Y. – A government panel studying nuclear waste transportation issues should evaluate the questionable circumstances surrounding a recent shipment of high-level nuclear waste from the West Valley Demonstration Project in Western New York to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Public Citizen said today.

In a letter sent to the National Academies Committee on Transportation of Radioactive Waste, the group raised concerns about the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) handling of the shipment of 125 irradiated fuel assemblies (bundles of fuel rods) by rail 2,360 miles without informing local officials, emergency first responders or the public along the route.

The seven-car train departed Ashford, N.Y., about 45 miles south of Buffalo, shortly after midnight on July 13, and arrived in Idaho four days later, according to news reports. The shipment was one of the largest in U.S. history, according to a spokesperson for the West Valley Demonstration Project, a closed nuclear reprocessing facility. DOE officials cite security concerns in explaining the decision to keep quiet about the shipment. Many say that was a bad call.

“At least tell the fire chief,” said Bill King, town supervisor of Ashford, where the West Valley facility is located. “These volunteer firefighters are the ones who come running any time of day or night to respond to emergencies. If they’re not prepared and on notice, it threatens them and it threatens the community.”

The waste was transported inside 100-ton steel casks manufactured in the mid-1980s. Federal regulations do not require full-scale, physical testing of nuclear waste transportation casks. License requirements also ignore cask vulnerability to terrorist attack, even though independent tests have shown that shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles are capable of piercing the casks, which would result in the release of significant quantities of radiation.

“While we do not dispute the need to address the national security implications of nuclear waste transportation, we are not convinced that this level of secrecy is justified, or that it meaningfully reduces risks,” Public Citizen said in the letter. “On the contrary, such secrecy fundamentally conflicts with the principles of government transparency and accountability essential to protecting the public interest. Clearly, a more appropriate and effective way to reduce security risks associated with transporting nuclear waste would be to minimize shipments.”

The West Valley waste is part of the legacy of the United States’ failed experiment with commercial nuclear waste reprocessing. Irradiated nuclear fuel was imported to West Valley from reactors that have since been shut down, but the plant — an ecological and economic debacle — reprocessed only one year’s worth of irradiated fuel in the six years it operated (1966-1972), and the leftover waste has remained at the facility ever since.

The shipment of highly radioactive nuclear waste originally was scheduled for the fall of 2001. Due to security concerns following the Sept. 11 attacks, a DOE ban on all shipment of nuclear fuel was instituted immediately and again during the war with Afghanistan. Subsequently, the proposed shipment was cancelled with the arrival of cold winter weather. The casks are not certified to travel in temperatures less than 10 degrees below zero.

Even local groups that have been pushing for years for the cleanup of the site were dismayed about the shipment of the waste. Carol Mongerson, co-founder of the West Valley Coalition on Nuclear Waste, has been pushing for 25 years for cleanup at the highly contaminated site.

“Of course it would be nice if this waste could magically disappear,” she said. “But at the same time, we realize that there’s no place that isn’t somebody’s back yard, and transporting it introduces nuclear risks to many more communities along the routes.”

Government plans for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., call for thousands of cross-country nuclear shipments starting in 2010 – a point of contention in many communities along proposed shipment routes.

“The DOE wants the public to believe that these shipments are safe and then they proceed under cover of darkness without notifying local officials,” said Brendan Hoffman, organizer on nuclear waste issues at Public Citizen. “If this is how the agency handles one shipment, it certainly does not bode well for the proposed Yucca Mountain shipping campaign.”


To read the letter, click here.