Death Trips: Transportation of Nuclear Wastes

Map of Southern US labeled "Nuclear Shipment Routes"

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 4, "Tower of Babel: A Special Report on the Nuclear Industry." Find more from that issue here.

The South is the major crossroads for the transport of the world’s radioactive materials. The fuel and raw materials that power every nuclear reactor and every nuclear weapon in the United States, and nearly every nuclear reactor in the Western world, have been hauled to and from processing and fabrication facilities throughout the South. Now the lethal radioactive wastes produced from operating the reactors and building the nuclear weapons are being carried in ever-increasing numbers through Southern ports and cities, farmlands and mountains. 

A quick glance at a chart prepared by the U.S. Geologic Survey in 1975 clearly illustrates this fact. The chart shows the movement of radioactive materials for energy purposes in the United States. Broad swaths through Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and the Carolinas indicate the movement of natural uranium and manufactured nuclear fuel along 1-40, 1-64, 1-77, 1-26, 1-20 and 1-95. The key facilities along these routes include the gaseous diffusion plants owned by the Department of Energy (DOE) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Paducah, Kentucky; and Piketon, Ohio. These plants have a monopoly on the supply of enriched uranium in the non-communist countries. 

Also in the South are major nuclear fuel fabrication plants operated by General Electric in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Westinghouse in Columbia, South Carolina, which supply nuclear fuel elements to commercial power reactors worldwide; Westinghouse also has planned fabrication plants in Anderson, South Carolina, and Montgomery, Alabama. 

Ironically, this chart shows nothing about the transport of much more hazardous radioactive materials through the South: irradiated fuel elements (lethally radioactive “spent fuel” removed from nuclear reactors), plutonium for use in nuclear weapons and the fuels used to power nuclear submarines. 

Plutonium is regularly shipped by the DOE from the Savannah River Plant near Aiken, South Carolina, to the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado. These plutonium shipments are made by a special paramilitary courier team operated by a division of the DOE. Secrecy around the courier team is so strict that standard operating procedures, including routes of travel, are not made public. The most likely route of travel for the plutonium shipments is from Aiken, through Augusta and Atlanta, Chattanooga and Nashville, Paducah, Kentucky, then west on 1-70 to Denver. 

The shipments are carried on board “Safe Secure Transport Vehicles” (SSTs), which are heavily shielded and booby-trapped tractor-trailer rigs. Chevrolet Blazers equipped with sophisticated communications gear and heavily armed guards accompany the SSTs. In spite of their lethal loads, the SSTs carry no placards or markings to warn people of the hazardous contents, as is required for all other carriers of hazardous materials. The DOE maintains that such secretive measures are necessary for security purposes; however, the SSTs are easily recognizable, to the point of being conspicuous to an observant eye. Any saboteurs capable of hijacking an SST could easily monitor the roads outside the production facilities and follow the trucks as they leave. In fact, pacifist and environmental groups in Hawaii and California have trailed and photographed shipments of nuclear weapons and SSTs to expose their presence. 

The most definitive work to date on the possible results from a transportation accident spilling plutonium has been done by Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico. Their analysis indicates that a “large quantity” shipment of commercial plutonium released in an urban area could result in nearly 4,000 latent cancer fatalities, 952 “early morbidities” (non-fatal health disorders) and scores of early fatalities. The costs of clean-up from such an accident could range as high as two billion dollars. No environmental impact statement has ever been completed for the transportation of defense-related plutonium. 

The South is home to two private shipyards that have built nuclear ships. Ingalls in Pascagoula, Mississippi, has built nuclear attack submarines, and the Newport News shipyard in Virginia is building one nuclear aircraft carrier, eight nuclear attack submarines and a nuclear guided-missile cruiser. Fuel plants operated by Babcock & Wilcox in Lynchburg, Virginia, and by Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tennessee, build the ships’ reactor cores, which are then carried by train to the shipyards. No notice is given to communities along the shipment routes. In July, 1979, Ronald Clary, a structural engineer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), discovered that in an accident the casks bearing the fuel cores could rupture, allowing the control rods to fall out. If any water then entered the cask, it would start a chain reaction producing an intense radiation field lethal to anyone in the area. 

Spent fuel from nuclear ships is handled at Navy shipyards in Charleston, South Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia. Special DOE courier trains carry the spent fuel to the National Engineering Laboratories in Idaho for reprocessing. Once again, responsible officials along the shipment routes receive no notice of when and where the shipments are taking place. Those coming from Norfolk pass along the Norfolk and Western line through Roanoke; those from Charleston likely pass along the Southern line through Columbia. As is the case with plutonium shipments, these trains are not marked to indicate their hazardous cargo. 

Spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors is also regularly carried through the South. In its study of the impacts of transporting radioactive materials, Sandia Laboratories estimates the damages from a maximum credible accident involving spent fuel could range as high as $700 million. A successful sabotage attack on a commercial spent fuel cask is estimated to result in as much as two billion dollars in damages, scores of fatalities and hundreds of latent cancer fatalities. Other professional health physicists have calculated that such an accident could cause up to 1,300 early fatalities and hundreds of thousands of latent cancer fatalities. 

Regulation of spent fuel shipments is jointly carried out by the NRC and the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT sets standards for permitted levels of radiation emission from spent fuel casks. The NRC sets design criteria for cask construction. Both DOT and NRC regulations rely on the integrity of the containers to ensure safety in transit. Neither agency nor any other federal authority requires approval of shipment routes, notification of public agencies of impending shipments, emergency response plans along the routes or radiological training for drivers and handlers of radioactive materials. 

Because of these major omissions in federal regulations, over the past five years 80 states and municipalities — at the urging of concerned citizens — have enacted some form of regulation for hazardous radioactive materials. This local action has finally spurred the federal government into action. The DOT is drafting regulations which more than likely will pre-empt local authority to regulate shipments, but there is no assurance that such regulations will provide the kind of supervision the local governments are demanding. The draft of this controversial rule will be published shortly, and should create great debate among active citizens’ groups and local governments which have passed what they consider to be needed laws. 

In June, 1979, the NRC did issue an interim rule — NUREG 0561 — for spent fuel shipments which for the first time required NRC approval of shipment routes, prior notification of each shipment to the NRC and, “where practicable,” that shipments avoid cities with populations in excess of 100,000. Still there are no requirements for emergency response plans, no notification of individual shipments to local and state officials. There is also no provision for public involvement in the approval of routes for spent fuel shipment. 

Significantly, the DOE considers itself exempt from the NRC provisions. The department completed at least 13 shipments of spent fuel by October, 1979, without applying to the NRC for approval. This spent fuel is being transferred from the Turkey Point reactors near Miami, Florida, to Jackass Flats, Nevada, for use in experimental programs for long-term storage of the spent fuel. Although the DOE will not confirm the routes used, some of the spent fuel is carried directly to Nevada, probably along 1-95 to either 1-10 or 1-20 through the South. The rest is taken to Columbus, Ohio, for testing prior to arrival in Nevada, and follows 1-95 to either 1-77 or 1-75. 

The DOE goes to great lengths to assure the public that the shipment of spent fuel is safe. It distributes films showing dramatic full-scale crash tests of spent fuel casks propelled by rocket sleds into a massive concrete wall at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. The DOE fails to point out, however, that the type of casks used in the full-scale tests are not the type used to ship spent fuel today! Containers actually in use are of a significantly different design and have not been subjected to such full-scale tests. NRC staff also admit that real-life accident situations can be very different from those encountered in the DOE tests. 

The NRC rarely makes field inspections of spent fuel casks; in fact, when a cask is licensed, NRC staff only review the drawing and do not inspect the cask itself. Last April, seven casks were recalled from service (only 17 casks have been licensed in the United States) when it was found that they were not constructed to design specifications and were suffering warpage and bowing that could present safety problems. Currently, an NRC safety committee is reviewing two other unresolved design issues related to the safety of spent fuel casks. 

Experience in shipping spent fuel has been limited to date, since there is no place to permanently store or dispose of this highly radioactive and long-lived product. Over the past 30 years, there have been only some 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel. 

In the process of approving routes for the shipment of spent fuel, the NRC has identified five major routes which will probably be inspected for approval this year. Three of these five routes are entirely within the South. 

The steadiest flow of spent fuel comes from research and materials testing reactors located in foreign countries. The spent fuel from these reactors returns to the United States for reprocessing at the Savannah River Plant at a rate of 50 shipments per year. 

These shipments cross the Atlantic on container cargo lines for unloading in Southern ports. Ports of entry have included Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; and Baltimore, Maryland. The bulk, however, enter at Portsmouth, Virginia, for truck shipment along U.S. 258 to 1-95 and 1-20 through the Carolinas to Aiken. 

Although Portsmouth is one of the heavily populated areas the agency plans to exempt from unloading spent fuel shipments, the NRC is allowing the port to be used on an interim basis while alternative sites are investigated. Transnuclear, Inc., the spent fuel shipping agent, has not yet found another port willing to accept the radioactive cargoes. William Greene, director of the North Carolina State Ports Authority, wrote Transnuclear in August that “We do not want North Carolina’s ports utilized for this purpose.” Port Everglades and the Port of Miami, Florida, have also refused to accept any nuclear waste shipment. Several cities, including Charleston, South Carolina, and Garden City and Port Wentworth, Georgia, have also passed laws preventing shipments of spent fuel through their ports. The NRC is still looking for a small port city which will accept the spent fuel shipments. 

The first route to receive full approval from the NRC is the route used to ship spent fuel from Carolina Power & Light’s Robinson nuclear plant in Hartsville, South Carolina, to the CP&L Brunswick plant in Southport, North Carolina. CP&L is making about six train shipments per year from Hartsville to Southport (casks used to haul spent fuel on trains are capable of carrying 10 times the amount of spent fuel carried in a truck-mounted cask). 

The third route in the South would be Duke Power Company’s routing of spent fuel from their Oconee reactor in Seneca, South Carolina, to their McGuire nuclear plant just north of Charlotte, North Carolina. In this highly contested proposal, Duke Power would make 420 to 450 individual truck shipments of spent fuel from Oconee to McGuire to create additional storage space at Oconee. The Carolina Environmental Study Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council initiated legal proceedings to stop these shipments, arguing that they present an unnecessary risk and exemplify how the nuclear industry is proceeding with its nuclear power program without developing a rational nuclear waste storage program. 

Shuffling spent fuel among nuclear reactors is not unique to Duke and CP&L. Nuclear reactors across the country are running out of “on-site” storage space and are searching for temporary means of relieving their waste problems. Pending a permanent solution to the question of how to dispose of spent fuel and high-level wastes, a limited number of alternatives exist for solving this problem: expanding the on-site storage capability; ceasing to produce further wastes (shutting down the reactors); operating the reactors at a lower capacity so as to produce less wastes; or shipping the spent fuel to reactor sites with excess storage capacity (transshipment) or to an “away-from-reactor” (AFR) storage site. Many utilities have already expanded their on-site storage capabilities; others are finding off-site shipment of spent fuel to be a less costly alternative. 

The use of AFRs and transshipments will greatly increase the amount of spent fuel in transit. Estimates by the NRC indicate that shipments of spent fuel will increase nationally from about 200 per year in 1979 to over 2,000 in 1985, if current trends continue. 

The DOE has identified at least 27 reactors nationwide which will reach maximum storage capacity by 1985. The utilities which own these reactors will be seeking to ship spent fuel offsite, either by transshipment or to an AFR. Twelve of them are in the South. 

Transshipment will only compound the problem of shipping spent fuel, as Duke Power’s transshipment plan clearly illustrates. Although shipping spent fuel to McGuire will alleviate storage problems at Oconee, McGuire Unit 1 will reach full capacity by 1981. At that time Duke plans to ship the spent fuel from McGuire to the Catawba reactors under construction in South Carolina; when Catawba fills up, to the newer Cherokee nuclear plant, and so on. The dormant Allied General Nuclear Services (AGNS) reprocessing plant in Barnwell County, South Carolina, is the likely site for a federal AFR facility. Existing space at AGNS would allow for the storage of 430 metric tons a year, the amount produced in one year by about 15 nuclear reactors. Each reactor requires 60 to 70 truck shipments or six or seven train shipments to haul the spent fuel produced in one year; a year’s supply of spent fuel from 15 reactors equals three truckloads a day, or two trains a week. AGNS officials have stated that it would take about four-and-a-half years to expand the on-site storage capacity to 5,000 metric tons, the approximate amount of spent fuel currently stored at all commercial nuclear reactors in the United States. 

In light of the ever-increasing amounts of spent fuel and other radioactive material being carried through Southern communities, private citizens in many areas are working through their city councils and state legislatures to establish needed controls, in spite of the threats of federal pre-emption of local power. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Carolina Environmental Study Group, the Safe Energy Alliance and Carolina Action arranged public hearings before the city council at which hundreds of people from all sections of the community appeared to express opposition to the movement of spent fuel through Charlotte. In spite of Duke Power’s efforts to convince the city and county officials that such shipments are safe, both the Charlotte City Council and the Mecklenburg County Commission passed resolutions urging the NRC to block shipments through Charlotte and to explore other options. 

Friends United for Safe Energy (FUSE) had similar success before the Greenville County Commission. Appearing the same night that Duke Power officials showed the DOE film on spent fuel cask safety, FUSE was able to convince the commission to send a letter of concern about the proposed shipment to the NRC. Other citizens’ efforts have led to regulations covering nuclear shipments in Miami and Charleston. 

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) at one time expressed interest in establishing an AFR site, which it would open to spent fuel from across the country. Citizens groups throughout the Valley fought long and hard in opposition to this plan. For instance, Peg Mobley headed up PAWS (Prevent Atomic Waste Storage), a group which mobilized official opposition to the TVA AFR proposal in a number of northern Alabama communities, including Athens, the home of the Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant and a stronghold of pro-nuclear sentiment. Other citizens expressed strong opposition to the AFR at numerous TVA board meetings. Eventually, TVA officials shelved the AFR plans. 

A simple piece of legislation introduced by Representative Bill Tauzin and passed by the Louisiana legislature in 1978 sums up the feelings of many concerned citizens. It reads: “Notwithstanding any law, order or regulation to the contrary, no high-level radioactive wastes, including spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors, shall be transported into the state for disposal in this state or elsewhere.”