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Radiation Exposure & WIPP Trucks
January 1998

Many people are concerned about the potential for radiation exposure from WIPP trucks, particularly as the trucks will be traveling near residential areas once WIPP opens. It seems that even the by-pass route will be open to commercial traffic, so the potential for radiation exposure of passengers their cars stuck behind WIPP trucks in traffic, or exposure from trucks which may make frequent stops at intersections near residences, has raised some questions and concerns in the minds of citizens in affected areas.

Like most questions surrounding WIPP, the answer largely depends upon to whom one poses the question: Is there danger of radiation exposure to persons traveling on highways near WIPP trucks? Donovan Mager, a Westinghouse spokesman contacted via the WIPP Information Line at the DOE office in Carlsbad dismissed the idea that radiation exposure from proximity to WIPP trucks poses any threat to public health.

"(The radioactive releases from the trucks) are Alpha particles, which can be stopped by a piece of paper," Mager claims. "How much is too much (exposure to radiation)? No one really knows," he says.

Don Hancock is one of the foremost experts on WIPP in New Mexico. He says Department of Energy analysis based on what the agency calls "normal emissions" from radioactive transport, or TRUPAC, trucks, indicates that a person riding in a car stuck in traffic behind suck a truck would be exposed to radiation. However, DOE analysis indicates that the amount of exposure in these cases would be highly unlikely to cause cancer.

"What most (experts) say is there is no safe level of radiation exposure," Hancock notes. "The major concern with WIPP waste in inhalation, because a very small amount (of plutonium) in your lungs will give you cancer."

So while radiation exposure in any dose is not good for you, and can contribute to health hazards, "you would be hard-pressed to find a medical professional to say that this kind of exposure would cause cancer," Hancock states.

According to Hancock, radiation is not much different from a flu virus in this respect: Its effect depends largely on the individual's health at the time of exposure. If your resistance is down, if you are suffering from depression, or just overly fatigued, you are naturally more susceptible to negative health impacts caused by radiation.

Hancock says that one of the worst things about this type of exposure is that it in unnecessary and without the consent of the exposed. As our knowledge of the negative effects of radiation exposure in even small doses increases, many professions are making efforts to limit exposure in the work place. Many dentists, for instance, are beginning to use dental x-rays less frequently to reduce exposure for themselves, their staffs, and patients. You may have been offered a choice of whether or not to receive an x-ray at your last dental visit.

But in the case of TRUPAC trucks traveling on commercial highways and through residential areas, radiation exposure is neither necessary nor consentual. According to the DOE's Environmental Impact Statement on WIPP, the threat of "death and injuries to workers and the public is less if the waste remains in its existing storage sites."

The waste, in fact does not need to be moved immediately from in-site storage sites, which according to DOE's own analysis can safely store the waste for another 50-100 years. "The fact is," Hancock notes, "by DOE's own admission waste does not need to got to WIPP. So although it may not give you cancer, it is unnecessary exposure and that's never good. The public has been asked repeatedly in opinion polls if they are willing to be exposed and they have consistently said, 'no.'"

But according to Mager, completion of the Santa Fe by-pass is imminent so there is no real cause for citizen concern. "There will be fewer than ten shipments on St. Francis drive," he remarked. Fewer than ten??? "Well, ten to twenty," he retorted. This, he claims, is the figure oft quoted by DOE Carlsbad office manager George Dials.

Mager called later to report that his office estimates a total of 32 shipments on St. Francis drive. When this figure was presented to Chris Wentz of the State of New Mexico Radioactive Waste Task Force, he replied that it was simply not true. "It will be at least two years before the two-lane by-pass is in place," says Wentz, "and we estimate one to two shipments per week will travel 285 until then."

Wentz says the radiation an individual is exposed to when in proximity to a WIPP truck is roughly comparable to a chest x-ray. He adds, "The container would have to be radiating the maximum amount (allowable under federal safety guidelines) and you would have to stand next to it, naked, for a full-hour to get that amount." Further, Wentz claims the Santa Fe city ordinance restricting hours of transport to between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. will greatly reduce the potential for traffic jam exposure, at least on St. Francis.

"The shipments will be traveling on I-40," Wentz notes, "and that might be a potential bottleneck there. Hopefully we can time it so that we can avoid bottleneck."