HOW SECURE IS A NUCLEAR WASTE TRUCK?
by Jim Hall
New York Times -- Op. Ed.
June 19, 2002
Washington -- With the arrest of Jose Padilla, our worst fears were
confirmed: Al Qaeda was planning to build and detonate a dirty bomb
containing nuclear material in an American city. A danger previously
relegated to Hollywood screenplays is now a reality.
At the same time, the Senate is in the process of making the most
important transportation decision of the new century _ whether or not to
move 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste from power plants
nationwide to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. For more than 20 years, debate
on the Yucca Mountain project has centered on only half of the issue.
The Department of Energy has spent more than $7 billion and 24 years
studying the geology of potential repository sites, but only four
percent of that has been spent on transportation issues. Yet even
despite that spending, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said recently
that the department is "just beginning to formulate its preliminary
thoughts about a transportation plan." Now, in light of Sept. 11,
proceeding with the Yucca Mountain project without a fully secure
transportation plan that takes into account terrorism threats is
dangerous and irresponsible.
Government officials believe Al Qaeda and other terrorist
organizations have sought to purchase uranium and the other necessary
tools to make a dirty bomb. According to experts, each truck container
of spent nuclear fuel (containers used for rail and barge transport
would be bigger) headed for Yucca Mountain would carry more radioactive
material than was released by the nuclear bombs used in World War II. If
one of these containers were breached, in an accident or a terrorist
attack, the results would be catastrophic.
Before Congress makes any decision on where to store this country's
nuclear waste, it must first determine whether that waste can be safely
transported on our highways, waterways and railways. Congress must
require that the Department of Energy conduct a comprehensive risk
assessment considering all potential hazards, including terrorist
threats. Congress must also demand that the department develop a
transportation safety plan that outlines steps to be taken in the event
of terrorist acts and accidents. And there must be full-scale testing of
the containers to be used for transporting this waste. The
transportation plan must be created in an open process that includes
input from state and local officials and the public. With our enemy in
active pursuit of dirty bombs, our considerations about nuclear waste
management have to change.
Secretary Abraham has said there is plenty of time to create a
transportation plan before Yucca Mountain begins receiving nuclear waste
eight years from now. But safety issues will almost certainly get short
shrift if they are not addressed before the repository site is approved.
Congress needs to force the Department of Energy to reassess the
dangers of transporting high-level nuclear waste and develop a secure
plan before proceeding with the Yucca Mountain project.
Jim Hall, a member of the National Academy of Engineering's Committee on
Combating Terrorism, was chairman of the National Transportation Safety
Board from 1994 to 2001.
Back to Yucca Mountain