CONVICT HOPS NUCLEAR TRAIN, SPURS CRITICS
ENVIRONMENTALISTS, WHO BROUGHT THE ESCAPEE'S MARCH ADVENTURE
TO LIGHT, SAY IT PROVES IT IS RISKY. THE INDUSTRY SAYS IT PROVES IT IS SAFE.
by Louis Hau
St. Petersburg Times --June 4, 2002
Environmentalists, who brought the escapee's March adventure to
light, say it proves it is risky. The industry says it proves it is
A small-time criminal escaping from a state-run boot camp in North
Carolina hopped aboard a passing freight train a few months back, only
to hop off again when he realized he had picked the worst possible ride.
The train was loaded with state troopers and armed security guards.
The convict and a fellow escapee were soon back in custody.
All that security was necessary because the train was carrying
highly radioactive spent fuel from a nuclear power plant.
The incident happened in March, but it is coming to light now
through the efforts of environmentalists. They call it new evidence of
the risks involved in disputed plans to haul the accumulating waste from
the nation's nuclear power plants to a proposed waste repository at
Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Only one nuclear power company in the United States sends its waste
fuel on train trips to a storage site: Progress Energy Inc., the parent
of Florida Power of St. Petersburg.
Like most nuclear power facilities, Florida Power's nuclear plant in
Crystal River stores its spent fuel on site. But that's not true of two
plants in the Carolinas run by Progress subsidiary Carolina Power &
CP&L's Brunswick plant in Southport, N.C., and its H.B. Robinson
plant in Hartsville, S.C., have run out of storage space for used fuel
rods. So about 10 times a year, CP&L loads spent fuel rods from one
plant or the other on a train and carts them to its third plant, the
Shearon Harris facility in New Hill, N.C.
The Harris site was originally designed for four nuclear reactors,
with all the storage that would require, but only one reactor was built.
The waste is hauled over 207 miles of track from the Brunswick plant
and over 132 miles of track from the Robinson plant for storage.
Although the incident with the train-hopping escapees did no damage,
critics say it proves the danger of carrying the waste by train.
"It was disturbing," says Pierre Sadik, a staff attorney for U.S.
PIRG, the Washington, D.C., lobbying arm for state Public Research
Interest Groups. "It means that shipping nuclear waste is a risky
proposition. I don't know what other conclusion you could reach."
Low-level radioactive waste, such as irradiated gloves and rags used
by plant workers, poses little risk to public health and is often
shipped to off-site disposal sites. But spent nuclear fuel rods emit
lethal amounts of radiation that require extraordinary security and
Progress Energy says the train-hopping incident demonstrated that
its security precautions worked properly.
"We're confident that we're doing everything possible to keep those
shipments secure," Progress spokesman Keith Poston said. "The federal
government obviously concurs or else they wouldn't let us continue
shipping." He said the train-hopper "never posed a threat to the
shipment" or "we would have employed deadly force if necessary."
Poston adds that "there are no plans at all" to ship nuclear waste
from Florida Power's Crystal River plant before the opening of a federal
waste repository. If capacity at Crystal River runs low before that, he
says, the company would build additional storage capacity on site.
The train-hopping incident didn't surface until it was publicized by
a Durham, N.C., environmental group, NC Warn, which is seeking an
immediate suspension of the shipments.
"While not an attack, this incident proves CP&L cannot fully protect
against terrorist attack," the group said in a letter last month to
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley. "If these people had intended to, they
were in a position to cause a serious radiation release harming many
members of the public and causing millions of dollars in property
damage." Gordon Thompson, executive director of the Institute for
Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, Mass., says he's more
concerned about the risk of terrorist attack than accidents or
A truck, train or barge carrying high-level nuclear waste is a more
vulnerable target for terrorism than a nuclear power plant simply
because it isn't protected by a security perimeter like a wall or fence,
Thompson says. He adds that a terrorist action on a shipment of
high-level nuclear waste would most likely be focused on destroying the
shipment to spark a fire that would release radiation.
According to federal regulations, each transportation cask used to
move spent high-level nuclear fuel must be able to survive four tests in
succession: a 30-foot free fall, which is the equivalent of a 120-mph
crash into a concrete bridge abutment; a puncture test, during which the
container must fall 40 inches onto a steel rod 6 inches in diameter; a
half-hour exposure to a 1,475-degree Fahrenheit fire that engulfs the
structure; and submergence under 200 meters of water for one hour
without collapsing, buckling or leaking.
But Sadik of U.S. PIRG says that real-life circumstances could
overwhelm even containers that pass these tests. For example, he notes
that many routes to Yucca Mountain include rail and highway bridges that
span heights in excess of 30 feet.
But the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear
power industry's leading trade group, stands firm on the safety of
nuclear waste shipments. Spokeswoman Thelma Wiggins says that there has
never been a documented instance in the United States of injuries,
deaths or environmental damage caused by the release of radioactivity
during the shipment of such materials.
"The bottom line is, the containers have held up," Wiggins says.
In April, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn vetoed President Bush's earlier
designation of Yucca Mountain as the site of a centralized nuclear waste
repository, under procedures set by Congress.
The House of Representatives has since voted to override Guinn's
veto and the Senate is expected to vote on the matter in July.
Back to Yucca Mountain