If the nuclear industry gets its way, thousands of tons of deadly radioactive waste will roll onto public roads and rail lines, bound for a geologically unstable storage site in the Nevada desert–at taxpayers’ expense. Besides the huge monetary cost, this plan poses enormous risks to public health. Unless the public puts a stop to it, we will be unnecessarily subjected to the largest nuclear waste transportation program in history.
Nuclear reactors create electricity using a very dirty technology–fission–which increases the radioactivity of the uranium fuel in the reactor’s core a millionfold. Nuclear power plants weren’t designed to house all their waste, and now their cooling pools are filling up with radioactive spent fuel. Instead of looking for ways to isolate this lethal material, the nuclear industry is pushing hard for a cheap quick fix that dumps the problem on us and future generations. Between January 1995 and June 1997, it pumped $12.8 million in campaign contributions into Congress. Both houses passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1997–known to opponents as Mobile Chernobyl. Congress adjourned before finalizing the legislation. The new House has come up with a new version and wants to ram it through as fast as possible.
If Mobile Chernobyl becomes law, shipments from the nation’s 118 nuclear reactors and its handful of nuclear weapons facilities would begin in 2003. By truck, the toxic trash would travel in traffic down main roads through or around most major cities in forty-three states. By train, the hot cargo would ride with ordinary cargo. Fifty million people live within a half-mile of the proposed routes. If you live in St. Louis, for example, one shipment will come through every eight hours on average for thirty years.
Transporting radioactive waste exposes people on the roads and along the rails. Mary Olson, a nuclear waste specialist with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, DC, says the passengers of a car traveling next to a truck carrying the toxic trash would receive radiation equivalent to one chest X-ray an hour. That poses particular risks to pregnant women, children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
It could also expose people to deadly radiation in the case of an accident. A report from the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects says it would take less than three minutes for an adult standing three feet from an unshielded ten-year-old fuel assembly to receive a lethal dose of radiation. Transportation Department data tell us that nearly 100,000 accidents released toxic material in the United States and its territories between 1987 and 1997. Based on that data, and factoring in the number of shipments needed to move 3,000 tons of nuclear waste per year, as Mobile Chernobyl requires, Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen estimates that there will be 210 to 354 accidents over the duration of the program.