L>At Hearing, Experts Rip Safety of Waste Transport

At Hearing, Experts Rip Safety of Waste Transport
By Benjamin Grove
Las Vegas Sun, May 22, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Nevada assembled six experts who testified in the Senate today against a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, mostly arguing that the plan posed grave transportation risks.

In the second Senate committee hearing on Yucca Mountain since Gov. Kenny Guinn vetoed the project last month, Nevada leaders put together a panel of witnesses that attacked the safety of transporting high-level nuclear waste to the proposed dump 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The hearing followed one last week in which Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham urged approval of the waste dump.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, whose city lies on the transportation route, testified today that more waste would travel through his town than any city besides Las Vegas.

"Without adequate research as to the safety of transporting this waste, without details of where and how it will travel, the American public, our representatives in Congress, and our federal regulatory agencies are being asked to sign off on one of the most expensive projects, and perhaps the most dangerous project, in the history of the United States," Anderson said.

The hearing in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was a disappointment to two of the Senate's leading Yucca Mountain advocates, they said.

The hearing was designed to allow Nevada officials to air their objections to Yucca Mountain. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said they wanted to hear from Nevadans.

Instead, they heard from the state's panel of experts from around the country who mostly argued that waste shipping was dangerous.

That argument is "not pertinent" as the Senate ponders the narrow question whether to simply proceed with Yucca Mountain, Murkowski said.

"I was looking forward to hearing from the governor and the Legislature about the reasons for the state's veto as well as from any other Nevadans who may be opposed," Murkowski said. "One could easily assume, as I have implied, that the state does not have a problem with the site selection."

Nevada officials, who have loudly opposed the project throughout its 20-year history, flatly denied that.

Later in the hearing, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the state opted to assemble experts who could offer fresh perspectives.

"People would like this to be people from Nevada complaining. We could do that, and we've done it for years," Reid said.

Reid said he was disappointed that only a few senators on the 22-member committee bothered to show up. Aside from Murkowski and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, only two other senators made brief appearances. Murkowski and Craig left before the hearing's end.

"I'm disappointed they didn't stay for the hearing, they may have learned something," Reid said.

While senators often miss hearings due to conflicts in their schedules, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said this hearing should have been a priority.

"It really is a shame the rest of the senators were not here to hear this," Ensign said. "It's such an important issue."

Committee chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., allowed Reid and Ensign to sit on the committee and ask the panelists questions.

"The evidence is so clear against Yucca Mountain it is amazing to me people still want to go forward with it," Ensign said in his concluding remarks.

The Senate committee will hold its last Yucca hearing on Thursday when more technical experts are expected to testify. The committee likely will vote June 5 on whether to recommend Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. A full vote of the Senate is expected by early July. The House approved Yucca May 8.

Craig, a vocal Yucca Mountain supporter, accused the panelists of fear mongering and exaggerating the potential for danger in waste shipping.

But the Nevada senators -- and their assembled panelists -- said the threat was real considering potential accidents and terrorist acts.

"We have evil people in this country today who are looking for targets," Reid said. "If there is fear generating today, it's the right thing to do."

Craig said he understood the politics of that and said the state was "really in the business of trying to generate as much fear as possible."

Mayor Anderson said that's a mischaracterization of the anti-Yucca argument.

"We are attempting to point out some of the massive terrorist risks," Anderson said.

The panel included Robert Halstead, the state's transportation consultant; Grand Valley State University (Michigan) Professor James Ballard, a terrorism expert and Nevada consultant; Victor Gilinsky, former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and consultant; Michael Ervin, a former truck driver and police officer in Pomona, Calif.; and Stephen Prescott, director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah.

Ballard said terrorists are drawn to nuclear targets, especially targets that are part of a federal project. An accident could stigmatize a city and devastate its economy, he said.

Prescott testified about the potential for people to get cancer from a nuclear waste accident.

Prescott's institute still treats people from Western states whose cancers they likely developed from exposure to the fallout of nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site, he said.

"Now the citizens of the same region are being asked to assume the risk of a (another round of radiation exposure," he said. "We are told, again, that the risk will be low. But will an anticipated accident during the transportation cause my neighbors to develop lung cancer? Leukemia? Bone tumors?"

Ervin said he had seen many truck crashes as a driver and cop. He told senators that truckers face challenges that would create waste-shipping risks, including fatigue, weather, careless drivers and truck failures.

"I think of a tractor-trailer rig as a missile," Ervin said. "The question is, is it under control or out of control?"

Nuclear industry and DOE officials assert that truck shipments would be closely monitored, satellite-tracked, and driven by fresh, alert drivers.

After the hearing, Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis dismissed much of the testimony.

"This panel is bought and paid for by the state of Nevada today," he said.

Davis said that the Energy Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were working together to assure that transportation is safe and that all federal rules are followed.

"If they want to improve or expand the rules or make them tougher, we will comply," Davis said.

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