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Path of Least Resistance

September 20, 2000
By: Erin K. Guyer
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missourians have just one more day to comment on a federal government plan that could end up sending tons of highly radioactive waste through the state.

Sparks flew last spring when legislators in Iowa and Missouri debated whether nuclear waste should be shipped west through Interstate 70 in Missouri or less traveled Interstate 80 in Iowa during the summer. While Missouri won that battle due to safety concerns about I-70, the decision appears to be a minor victory.

As spent nuclear fuel and waste accumulates across the country and in other nations, the federal government is looking for ways to manage the hazardous material. The U.S. has 103 active nuclear reactors, plus waste from closed reactors and research reactors. Nuclear waste is also being shipped to the U.S. under Atoms for Peace, an international agreement whereby America accepts waste produced from the peaceful use of atomic energy. While an exact site in the west is still being selected for the nuclear remains, planners are already in the process of mapping shipment routes.

Government agencies and nuclear reactor operators are considering two major options for storing waste. One option is Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a site that would be monitored and maintained by the government. Shipments made to this site would likely utilize a truck route across I-70, cutting through Missouri. The other site also is located in the western U.S.

According to the Missouri's Natural Resources Department, many of the shipments making the cross-country journey would originate from the U.S. Energy Department's Savannah River nuclear holding site in South Carolina.

Transportation of nuclear waste using trucks on I-70 has resulted in heated opposition, both among legislators and communities. "High level nuclear waste is one of the most dangerous substances on earth. The radioactive poisons inside, even if released in small quantities, could result in a catastrophe for an area," said Kevin Kamps, from the Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), an activist group.

"The transportation casks that would be used across Missouri have not been adequately tested. Not even close. The fire test was first established way back in the 1940's for a house fire temperature and there are combustibles on the roads and rails today that burn at much higher temperatures than that," Kamps said.

But government officials respond there is no cause for concern.

"We treat hazardous waste shipments like any other shipments," said Jeff Briggs, a spokesman for the Missouri Transportation Department. "We make sure it has the right permits, things like not being too high to get under a bridge, to make sure that it can travel safely across the highway."

The other repository site being considered is a private arrangement with the Skull Valley Go-Shute Indian Tribe in Utah. The tribe would be paid to contain nuclear waste in a deal directly with Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of nuclear waste producers.

Instead of constant government supervision, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would license the Skull Valley Go-Shute Tribe and allow the tribe to manage the process privately with the waste producers. "We are currently completing our technical review of the Skull Valley Go-Shute site. If it's approved, it would be licensed for 20 years. After those 20 years are up, it could also be relicensed," said Mark Delligatti, project manager for the NRC. Shipments would be made using primarily Union Pacific rail, also cutting through Missouri.

Those who have concerns about truck shipments of nuclear waste aren't appeased by the Skull Valley Go-Shute proposal using trains.

"Since not all nuclear power sites have direct train access, there would be trucks that would drive to a localized area, posing a risk to the community," said Kay Drey, a NIRS nuclear waste specialist.

Furthermore, critics argue that shipments on railways put the public in danger, despite avoiding heavy volume on I-70. "In terms of rail shipments, nuclear waste would be within a stone's throw of the state capitol. There would be around 200 such shipments a year," says Kamps.

Kamps has been urging communities along I-70, like Columbia, to demand public hearings on the proposed shipment routes. The NRC's public commentary period ends Thursday, September 21. He says, "The NRC wants to close the book on public comments. And people don't even know there is a public comment period."

Few residents in the area are even aware that shipments would be routed through Missouri, either by road or rail. National environmental policy requires the NRC to hold public hearings on issues that involve nuclear waste, but there have been no hearings in Missouri. The NRC met the requirement by offering hearings in Utah.

The United States currently has more than 80,000 metric tons of spent radioactive fuel to stow.

Spent fuel wastes continue to grow thanks to 41 other countries sending nuclear leftovers to the U.S. Those on all sides of the issue agree the nuclear waste must be contained, but deviate on the issue of shipment safety. Kamps says, "It's a real invitation to disaster, and unfortunately, even the regulators and the government are allowing this to happen."