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 safe.

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 & Light.

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 storage precautions.

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 derailments.

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.

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