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by Peter Werbe

At the dawn of the nuclear age a scant five decades ago, giddy futurists predicted an energy source so inexpensive it would be "too cheap to meter." Today, as the twilight of the U.S. atomic power program approaches, critics predict a financial and ecological nightmare if

Congress goes along with an industry sponsored bill designed to dispose of the growing heap of radioactive waste from aging reactors.

Dubbed the "Mobile Chernobyl Bill" by anti-nuclear activists, the

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Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1996, if passed, would authorize thousands of yearly shipments of highly radioactive material to travel the nation's rail and highway system bound for a temporary storage site in Nevada. This worries Michael Mariott, executive director of Washington DC's Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). He and other critics fear the consequences of inevitable accidents and even possible terrorist attacks.

Marriott charges the utility industry with pressing for what amounts to a massive corporate bail-out bill at public expense to solve a problem they can't. He says the main purpose of the bill is to create what he calls, "a big liability shift." "The utilities want the waste they produced as a commercial enterprise off of their property so they're not responsible for accidents or environmental damage," he contends. "As soon as this dangerous cargo leaves the plant gates, the liability is on the taxpayer."
Without a safe, publicly acceptable, permanent repository, high-level waste is building up daily at the 109 U.S. atomic energy facilities. As nuclear power plants such as Michigan's Fermi 2 in Monroe, Big Rock Point in Charlevoix, and Palisades near Benton Harbor generate electricity from their huge steam turbines, spent highly radioactive waste is created as a by-product. This comes from its energy source, uranium, which is processed into fuel rods and loaded into reactor cores where they undergo a nuclear fission reaction. After several years of service, the rods must be replaced, but when removed, their radioactivity has increased almost a million times. The stored irradiated fuel is the most intensely radioactive material on the planet and emits lethal doses of radiation if left unshielded. The plutonium-239, part of the irradiated fuel stored in Michigan, has a half-life of 24,400 years. It remains dangerous for a quarter million years or 12,000 generations.
The spent fuel rods are stored either in cooling pools at the plant or, as on-site space fills up, in so-called dry casks nearby. At the Palisades plant, old fuel is in 13 100-ton concrete vessels located 150 yards from the Lake Michigan shoreline. Anti-nuclear activists have long questioned the safety of this procedure particularly given the sensitivity of the Palisades location. However, Consumer Power Co., the owner-operator of Palisades, insists the casks are safe even though the state recently brought suit against the utility company protesting storage so close to the lake. The nuclear power industry is hanging its hat on this current bill which was approved by the Senate in July with bi-partisan support and has cross-party sponsorship for its House version, HR 1020. Although it has the names of prominent liberal representatives such as John Conyers (D-Det.) and Lynn Rivers (D-Ann Arbor) attached to it, President Clinton opposes the bill and has threatened a veto.
If enacted, the legislation would permit shipping the nation's high-level nuclear waste by truck and rail across 43 states in 18-foot insulated, steel casks to a temporary site in Yucca Mountain, Nev to what critics say is no more than a fenced parking lot until a permanent repository is approved.
The NIRS' Mariott says the bill has its origins in a state suit filed by Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelly against Palisades' use of dry casks. This pushed the utilities to become concerned about getting the waste out of the state quickly. Introduced by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Kalamazoo) in whose district Palisades lies, the HR 1020 bill was written by industry representatives who have lobbied extensively for it in Congress. Bipartisan support came, according to Mariott, through Attorney General Kelly, who brought in the Democrats. "Michigan led the way," Mariott complains, "in the Not In My Back Yard spirit."
The bill contains no provisions for costs, but industry spokespeople say they already have been paid by individual state ratepayers whose utility bills in part reflect a contribution to the national Nuclear Waste Fund which was established to pay for a permanent disposal site. Money in the Fund goes to the federal government which in turn allocates it through Congress for the cost of permanent storage.
The problem, says Marriott, is that the priorities of the Fund would be altered by building and maintaining a temporary storage facility designated under the current bill. He charges that even though there is $11 billion dollars currently in the fund, there will soon be a shortfall because the money is being spent on a "temporary quick fix." The situation is aggravated by the difficulty in finding a host community which will agree to be the site for temporary storage. Between 1991 and 1994, more than 30 communities defeated local proposals to accept nuclear waste, and the government is no closer to finding a permanent site then they were in 1972 when the search began.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act is also being criticized for ignoring local wishes. The bill's provisions call for overriding Nevada state law prohibiting importation of nuclear waste and treaty rights claimed by the Western Shoshone tribe on whose land the Yucca Mountain site rests. Mary Olsen, a nuclear waste specialist with NIRS, worries about the 16,000 shipments a year which would be needed under the pending legislation. "This isn't a little problem; this is a big problem we're faced with," she says.
The shipping casks weigh 25 tons for trucks and up to 125 tons for rail transport. Olsen says statistically we know accidents will occur and could lead to lethal exposures creating increases in cancer, birth defects and immune system suppression. The American Petroleum Institute calculates six accidents for every million miles traveled by a heavy truck and with thousands of shipments expected yearly under the bill, at least 15 mishaps annually could occur. The containers are built to withstand 30 mph impacts, but Olsen points out that trucks and trains travel considerably faster.
Because U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) regulations require shipments use the best maintained roads and rail lines, routes will go through major cities, Olsen says.
"51 million people who live within two miles of the shipping routes are exposed to a real risk of accident." "Unless we build a whole new rail and highway infrastructure," she says, "we're stuck using the ones which go straight through Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis."
But even under the best case scenario, Olsen sees dangers. Radiation will be emitted through the transportation cask containers and to stop it, she explains, a lead shield would have to be constructed that would make the truck so heavy it couldn't move. "If you were next to one, say stuck in traffic, it would be comparable to receiving one x-ray an hour for an adult, so you don't need an accident to increase the radiation exposure people will receive." Waste shipment truck drivers would receive the heaviest exposure. A Detroit Edison spokesman says risks are minimal for both transportation and storage.
Olsen says, "The nuclear industry wants to take the same casks which are a problem here and move them somewhere else. There is no net change in the method of storing the waste, just who has the liability."
She admits neither she nor anyone else has an adequate solution to the problem of long term storage, but says a start would be the immediate closing of all existing nuclear facilities.
Only about one third of the waste the DoE anticipates storing at Yucca Mountain has already been generated; the rest will be from future nuclear operation. "Whether the plants are open or closed is crucial," Olsen says. "We have the ability to prevent two-thirds of this problem."
The NIRS is calling for an independent review since there's never been a study by someone not connected to those with a vested interest in the situation.
"We can't trust the utilities and Congress to solve the problem," she says.

NIRS can be reached at 1424 H St., NW, Washington DC 20036; call 202-328-0002

Activists from NIRS and the Shundahai Network visited Detroit August 19 as part of their "Don't Waste America" tour. The groups stopped at Detroit Edison headquarters, the operator of Fermi 2, on their way to the Democratic Convention. to urge defeat of the bill.
To emphasize their point, their van, home for seven activists, it tows a 20-foot long, 12 foot-high, fiber-glass, dumbbell-shaped, mock, nuclear waste cask.
Mateo Ferreira, who performs in guerrilla theater at road stops, explains "shundahai" means peace in the language of the Western Shoshone native people.
"We want to give people a wake up call of what is going to be going through their communities if this scheme is passed," he says.

(Neat paragraph that would like a home.)

Adding to the difficulties the government and the nuclear industry face is the fact that the term "disposal" does not apply to materials which will remain hazardous virtually forever. For instance, the English Channel did not exist five thousand years ago and within the last 10,000 years, a volcano erupted near Yucca Moutain. Geologists say there is no hole in the earth filled with high-level waste which can be predicted will remain isolated and undisturbed for a millenium.

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Last modified: October 21, 1997