Highway to Hell

When it comes to radioactive waste shipments, are accidents inevitable?

DOE personnel walk through the U1a complex, 960 feet underground, at NNSS. | Photo courtesy of DOE

DOE personnel walk through the U1a complex, 960 feet underground, at NNSS. | Photo courtesy of DOE

From the Miss Atomic Bomb faux-beauty pageants of the 1950s to the state-issued Nevada Test Site historic preservation license plate, Las Vegas’ history seems to wink approvingly at all things atomic. Bars, drinks, tattoo parlors and even museums are dedicated to our storied relationship with the bomb. But flip that coin and there’s the equally storied controversy of Nevada’s modern-day status as the nation’s nuclear dump.

While funding for Yucca Mountain  was cut off in 2010, the site is still being considered as the sole repository for high-level nuclear waste despite opposition from Senator Harry Reid and the State of Nevada. And sites all over the country are already storing—and transporting—radioactive waste from military weapons and nuclear reactors. Whether by truck, train or water, radioactive waste passes through almost every state in the country, and some of it is ending up in commercial and government sites in Nevada.

With thousands of tons of waste moving around, it’s not a question of if there will be accidents, but when. Accident statistics for radioactive waste shipments are difficult to collect, since they are reported by several different agencies depending on the type of waste (low-level, transuranic or spent fuel) and where it originated (private or public facilities). However, in a 2014 Department of Energy report for fiscal year 2013, there were two incidents—a package “shift” on a truck from Los Alamos National Laboratory and a package breach in a shipment from Arizona.

DOE workers practice radiation contamination drill. | Photo courtesy of DOE

DOE workers practice radiation contamination drill. | Photo courtesy of DOE

Just last month, low-level radioactive waste burned in a trench at US Ecology, a commercial disposal site about 115 miles north of Las Vegas. The waste was put in the trench sometime in a 30-year-period before 1992. Emergency responders closed more than 140 miles of U.S. 95, and the Nye County School District evacuated two schools close to Beatty because of the fire.

In 2001, a tank car spilled 28,600 gallons of liquid tripropylene after a train derailed in a Baltimore tunnel.  The resulting fire burned for several days. According to congressional testimony by Dr. Marvin Resnikoff in 2002, flame temperatures exceeded 1,500 degrees. The incident has been used as a case study to illustrate how dangerous transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain could be. In his testimony, Dr. Resnikoff stated that the proposed Yucca Mountain spent fuel canisters, built to withstand 1,475 degrees for 30 minutes, which would contain radionuclides that are about 240 times the levels in the Hiroshima bomb, “are not designed to withstand every credible accident.”

“A real danger with these sites is that they’re just parking lot dumps,” says Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director with the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, a watchdog organization.

NIRS has been a particularly outspoken opponent of Yucca Mountain. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry has generated more than 74,000 metric tons of spent fuel waste. Last year, the DOE began looking for trains that can haul reactor waste, even though Yucca Mountain has not been cleared to accept such waste.

Despite decades long controversy over Yucca Mountain, both the government and private industry have been diligently working on expanding the types of radioactive waste stored in Nevada. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a report in August exploring potential groundwater contamination from burying high-level nuclear waste at the site, which is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, in May, the DOE announced that Nevada would start getting shipments of potent uranium waste from a federal laboratory in Tennessee, which has been seen by many as another step forward in the opening of Yucca Mountain.

“This is a new scheme, a plan, that would put exponentially more [nuclear waste] on our roads, trains and waterways,” D’Arrigo says.

This is in addition to low-level radioactive waste from nuclear weapons and other government sites that has been shipped and stored at the Nevada National Security Site (formerly called the Nevada Test Site) since 1961. The NNSS facility, also known as Area 5, has received 27 million cubic feet of radioactive waste since 1961, says spokesman Darwin Morgan.

The NNSS receives 5 percent of the government’s radioactive waste, which are delivered by trucks that travel public highways. Once on site, the storage casks are stacked in trenches that are buried in 8 feet of dirt when they are full. The DOE site also handles radioactive waste from military weapons, including nuclear bombs.

DOE technicians at NNSS testing facility. | Photo courtesy DOE

DOE technicians at NNSS testing facility. | Photo courtesy DOE

“The vast majority of what we do is focused on national security,” Morgan says. “We make sure the [nuclear bomb] stockpile is safe and secure.”

The NNSS is not the only DOE site that monitors and secures the military’s nuclear arsenal. It is possible to be sitting in traffic on a highway next to a truck carrying nuclear weapons in states all across the country.

For now, spent nuclear waste from reactors is transported rarely and is often stored onsite, but that could change if plans for Yucca Mountain move forward. With the wide variety of radioactive waste already traveling on public roads and by rail through Nevada, our best and perhaps only defense against a disaster is continued vigilance.