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The Feds Are Considering Shipping Spent Nuclear Fuel Through the Howard Street Tunnel. Are They Playing With Fire?

Christopher Myers
Christopher Myers
Christopher Myers
Christopher Myers
Christopher Myers

By Van Smith | Posted 9/12/2001

For a few days in mid-July, a few dozen train cars carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials burned out of control beneath the city. After a century of barely being known even to Baltimoreans, the Howard Street tunnel was suddenly in the national spotlight.

As an event, the tunnel fire was both scary and enthralling. Local residents and commuters were inundated with news of gridlock, a water-main break, and possibly toxic smoke. TV sets all over the country glimmered with images of menacing plumes and flooded streets, coupled with reports that the too-hot-to-fight inferno was disrupting not only rail traffic, but Internet services via cables that also run through the tunnel. But as normalcy was restored in the ensuing days and weeks, coverage tailed off. Today, for most folks, the fire is just a memory.

Lost in the immediacy of the moment and the disinterest of its aftermath are two questions that may ensure the Howard Street tunnel fire's lasting legacy: What if nuclear waste had been among the freight in the hottest part of the fire? Could radioactivity have been released, contaminating people and property in the heart of a major East Coast city?

The question isn't merely theoretical. A long-studied proposal for handling the nation's growing inventory of nuclear waste by carting it from points around the country to a permanent repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain is expected to reach President Bush's desk later this year. If the project gets a presidential thumbs-up and survives the resulting legal challenges, spent nuclear fuel will be a frequent passenger on the nation's highways and railroads for the next three or four decades, en route to the Nevada desert. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) call for carrying used-up fuel assemblies from Constellation Energy's Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland by train through the Howard Street tunnel.

When it comes to managing the potential of large-scale risks such as nuclear accidents, examining extreme hypothetical situations--the possibility, for instance, of nuclear waste in the Howard Street tunnel fire--is crucial to finding ways to avoid disasters. Thus, nuclear-transportation experts have started to examine and debate what they have dubbed "the Baltimore fire." Until the actual conditions of the fire--the top temperature reached, how long it stayed that hot--are established, much of the talk is necessarily speculative. But the central questions posed by the fire are already known: How sturdy are the containers used to transport nuclear waste? How foolproof are the methods of moving them safely by train?

Critics contend that the containers, called "transportation casks," haven't been tested enough to know their true strength; cost, rather than safety, is the chief priority in designing nuclear-transportation plans, they say. The nuclear-energy industry points out the exemplary safety record of waste shipments and outlines the stringent measures taken to guard against reasonably foreseeable dangers. However the argument turns out, it's a good bet that as the Yucca Mountain Project heats up, the Howard Street tunnel fire will be national news once again.

Sitting in her Mount Washington home July 18, Gwen Dubois listened anxiously to reports of a tunnel fire downtown. Her teenage son had already left on the light rail for a double-header at Oriole Park. "On any given day, he's as likely to be at Camden Yards as he is to be home, despite what's happened to the Orioles this season," she says, recalling her worries in an interview later that month. Knowing that freight trains often carry chemicals that can produce toxic smoke when burned, Dubois was "concerned about whether his health was at risk." When "later on I found out that he was stopped on North Avenue and came home, I was greatly relieved," she says.

Dubois' relief about the fire was short-lived. An internist, she sits on the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group based in Washington that works to raise public awareness of nuclear issues. On her house hangs a large banner reading nuclear-free zone. Attuned as she is to nuclear risks, her thoughts quickly broadened from the chemical fire to larger issues.

"Within hours," she says, "I was thinking, If this were a train carrying radioactive waste, what kind of exposures would there be? Who would be monitoring? Would we even know? What about the psychological impact on people who are afraid that they've been exposed? So, as bad as this fire was, I thought it would have been just truly a catastrophe if the train had carried nuclear waste. . . .

"As time goes by, the other issue is, it's going to become more and more likely that trains will contain nuclear waste, and nuclear waste carried in containers that haven't been adequately tested. And also, this train wreck--the temperatures were extremely high, high enough to cause burning of nuclear waste and make some of the radioactivity airborne and carried over a wider area," she continues. "So all of the specifics about this train fire--the temperature, the difficulty getting to it, the fact that it was in an urban area where a lot of people were potentially exposed--all of these factors are so relevant. If the cargo was radioactive, the implications would have really been just mammoth."

Dubois' mind was not the only one turning to the potential nuclear risks posed by the Howard Street tunnel fire. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)--the Senate majority whip and, like every other elected official in Nevada, a strident opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan--took to the Senate floor the day after the fire began to offer his take on the dangers.

"People think hydrochloric acid is bad, which it is," Reid said, referring to one of the hazardous materials carried by the burning train in Baltimore, "but not as bad as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we're talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it all across America."

Reid enlisted the aid of Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in promptly convincing his colleagues to do what politicians often do when drastic accidents occur: order a study. On July 23, as charred rail cars were being removed from the Howard Street tunnel, the Senate voted 96-0 to attach an amendment to the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations bill requiring DOT to conduct a top-down assessment of the nation's system for transporting hazardous and radioactive waste.

Reid's actions in the wake of the Baltimore fire caused a flurry of interest--back in Nevada. "Baltimore's experience should be reason enough to comprehend that Yucca Mountain isn't just Nevada's problem, it would be a land mine for any city or town that had the misfortune of being located near the path that would take nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain," the daily Las Vegas Sun editorialized on July 25 under the headline "Baltimore derailment a bad omen."

Also quick to pick up on the nuke-train angle was the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based activist group. The organization's nuclear-waste specialist, Kevin Kamps, shot off a press release on July 21, revealing that a U.S. Department of Energy assessment of the Yucca Mountain Project included route maps that showed nuclear-waste shipments going by rail from Calvert Cliffs through the Howard Street tunnel. Kamps spent the next two weeks touring the country, garnering news coverage of this new twist to the Yucca Mountain debate.

Pro-Yucca forces dismiss attempts to play up the Baltimore fire as a nuclear-waste-transportation issue. The day after Reid made his speech on the Senate floor, the industry issued its response. "It is really unfair for Sen. Reid to use this as an opportunity to make a case against Yucca Mountain by scaring the public," said Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the D.C.-based Nuclear Industry Institute (NEI). Sarah Berk, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), told reporters that Reid's response to the tunnel fire is "a misguided and misinformed effort to connect something that should not be connected. The fact of the matter is, if that train had been carrying nuclear components, it would have been protected in containers that would have prevented this sort of a spill." Berk stressed the nuclear-power industry's "phenomenal safety record" and its ongoing efforts "to develop safe and responsible methods to handle nuclear waste."

The NEI's Web site (www.nei.org) points out that nuclear-waste shipments are small, carefully managed, and do have a remarkable safety record: In nearly 40 years of transporting spent nuclear fuel, there have been 2,900 shipments and only eight accidents. Only one was serious, and none resulted in a radioactive release.

In Maryland, shipments of high-level radioactive materials have occurred without incident. Twenty-eight thousand pounds of radioactive material passed through Maryland in four shipments during July and August 2000, according to the Maryland State Police, which is notified of such hauls, and since 1996 approximately 15 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were trucked through the state in five separate shipments.

In addition, an NRC report shows that between 1993 and 1997 154.8 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were shipped out of state from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, Calvert Cliffs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Another 17.1 kilograms were sent to Dundalk for export.

The key to safely transporting spent nuclear rods is the survivability of the casks. The NRC, according to NEI's Web site, requires that transportation casks "pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions that create forces greater than the containers would experience in actual accidents. The same container must, in sequence, undergo 1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, 2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, 3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container, and 4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours."

What the NEI site doesn't point out is that never has an actual, full-size cask been subjected to this battery of assaults. Quarter-scale models have been used as the basis for computer models that predict how an actual cask would perform in extreme circumstances. But no actual full-scale testing has been conducted, because subjecting a 130-ton cask to those conditions is logistically challenging and very expensive--probably near $20 million per test. Thus--as Yucca Mountain Project critics like to point out--there is no real-life basis for concluding the casks can survive such extreme circumstances.

The third element in the NRC's list of standards--the 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit--is the one that turned attention to the Baltimore blaze. Firefighters here reported whole train cars aglow from the heat of the tunnel fire. On the second day of the fire, Baltimore City Fire Department officials told the press that the temperature in the tunnel was as high as 1,500 degrees. If the hottest part of the fire rose above 1,475 degrees for more than 30 minutes--as appears likely, though technical analysis has yet to prove it--then the Howard Street tunnel fire achieved a rare intensity that gives pause to nuclear-waste- transportation experts.

Questions to NEI's press office about whether casks are designed to survive a fire as intense as Baltimore's was reported to be were referred to Robert Jones, a Los Gatos, Calif., nuclear engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and now works as a nuclear-industry consultant. Jones was skeptical about whether the Baltimore fire actually exceeded the design standard for casks. If it did, he says, it would be a singular event. Jones cites a government study showing that the probability of an actual railroad fire exceeding the regulatory conditions is less than 1/10 of 1 percent.

"I'll wager that 1,500 degrees did not exist totally for a day and a half" in the Howard Street tunnel, Jones says. He acknowledges, though, that if it did, "there's a potential for some release. But we're not talking about this thing blowing up." Rather, he explains, "the leakage, if it was to occur, is likely to be a radioactive gas that would be dispersed."

Daniel Bullen, who sits on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board , concurs with Jones. "Would there potentially be a release? Yes," says Bullen, an Iowa State University engineering professor who used to run that school's now-closed nuclear-reactor laboratory. Foreseeing the questions his answer raises, he fires off a quick interview with himself: "Would it be a significant release? Probably not. Would it be hard to find? No, because radiation is pretty easy to find. Would it be difficult to remediate? Maybe. You might have to move a lot of dirt and clean up a lot of surface and stuff. But would it be significantly life-threatening? Probably not."

"Oh, this guy's just shooting from the hip," Marvin Resnikoff says upon hearing Bullen's characterization of the effects of a long-burning 1,500-degree fire. Resnikoff, a physicist, heads Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in analyzing nuclear-waste safety. The state of Nevada recently hired him to look at the Howard Street tunnel fire and report on its implications for safe transport of spent nuclear fuel. The report is due to be completed this month; when it's released, Resnikoff asserts, "we'll have much more definitive answers."

In the meantime, Resnikoff offers a glimpse of what he's learning. If the fire turns out to be as hot as reported--and his analysis will establish whether or not it was--then a potential release would include other materials besides radioactive gas.

"There are particulates," he says. "We are concerned about cesium 137 because it is semivolatile. And we are concerned about cobalt 60, to a lesser extent, because that material is on the outside" of spent-fuel assemblies and could be released more quickly in the event of a leak. Cesium 137 and cobalt 60 are radioactive carcinogens that have half-lives of 30 and five years, respectively, so they represent a long-term cancer risk. They emit gamma rays, which, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, "can easily pass completely through the human body or be absorbed by tissue, thus constituting a radiation hazard for the entire body." Based on the weather conditions that existed during the Baltimore fire, Resnikoff estimates that a radioactive smoke plume exiting the southern terminus of the tunnel would have spread perilously close to Camden Yards.

Until the report is concluded and released, Resnikoff declines to give any more details of his concerns about what could have happened if nuclear waste had been in the Howard Street tunnel fire. Robert Halstead, transportation adviser for the Nevada Office of Nuclear Projects, which hired Resnikoff to study the Baltimore fire, is much more candid.

If the fire was hot enough for a long enough time to compromise the casks and cause a leak, Halstead says, "you are going to be concerned with this plume of smoke carrying cesium and some other fission products. Obviously it's bad if you breathe it, but also, because it is a big-time emitter of gamma radiation, there is direct radiation from the plume. If anything's been deposited on the ground, it's irradiating the area also. It would cause a very big cleanup problem.

"So you basically would face this terrible choice," Halstead says. "You could easily spend in excess of $5 [billion] to $10 billion to clean the area. Or you could simply quarantine the area. The real answer on this is that you are probably going to have a situation where you've spent money rather than lives. There probably aren't going to be thousands of latent cancer fatalities, but you are going to have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to prevent that. That's a pretty fair ballpark [figure]."

If Resnikoff concludes that the Baltimore fire actually could damage a nuclear-waste-transportation cask enough to cause a radiation leak, the question becomes how to ensure that nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else, for that matter) is never subjected to such an accident. This opens up a whole other area of debate--some experts contend the shipping risks are minimal, while others assert transportation is the weakest link in the nuclear-waste-management chain.

Jones, the cask designer, points out that rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel are made on dedicated trains, hauling only nuclear-waste casks. That reduces the probability of waste being in a contained, inaccessible environment, such as a train tunnel, along with volatile chemicals and other materials that, when burning, can create extremely high temperatures for a long period of time. (The train that caught fire under Howard Street, for example, was loaded with wood and paper products.) Furthermore, shipping schedules can be coordinated to eliminate the possibility that a dedicated nuclear-waste train and a mixed-freight train with hazardous materials are in the same tunnel at the same time.

"You know, railroads don't just cut things loose and say we'll see you at the other end," Jones says. "They're very good at tracking these things. So the circumstances that would have to exist in order to have an environment where a spent-fuel train would be in that Baltimore tunnel fire or its equivalent is just extraordinary. A billion to one. It virtually isn't going to happen, just because that's the way the business is structured."

Resnikoff counters that "there is no regulation that says that nuclear-waste shipments will be by dedicated train. It would all be voluntary on the industry's part. If they'd like to sign a requirement that it will be by dedicated train, that would make a big difference. It costs more money to have a dedicated train. Do they want to put up the money? [That] is the question."

"It's perfectly credible that you could have one or two casks of spent fuel in a mixed-freight train going through that Baltimore tunnel," Halstead maintains. His reasoning is based on cost. In all likelihood, dedicated trains will be used to make large hauls of nuclear waste. But the small amount of waste at Calvert Cliffs--930 metric tons, about 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation's growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel--may well end up on trains carrying a variety of other materials.

"A contractor working for the Department of Energy who got [its] contract on a low-bid basis would be tempted to shave nickels and dimes by transporting a small number of casks a short distance on a mixed-freight train--say, from Calvert Cliffs maybe up to Harrisburg [Pa.]," Halstead says. There, he speculates, the Calvert Cliffs casks would be transferred to a dedicated train carrying other waste from other reactors in the region.

Calvert Cliffs spokesperson Karl Neddenien cautions that "at this point there is no plan whatsoever as to where and how the shipments will go. It's wide open." He notes that Calvert Cliffs is right next to the Chesapeake Bay, so "it may turn out to be safer to put it on a barge to go down to Norfolk, Va., to a railhead. We don't know." He acknowledges that Yucca Mountain planning documents do show a proposed route through the Howard Street tunnel but says nothing is set in stone.

And Bullen, of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, suggests the proposed route may be changed in light of this summer's events. "I'd be surprised if they let them use that tunnel after the fire," he says.

Another problem with shipping waste by train is that "there are no federal regulations that govern the selection of shipping routes for rail," Halstead says. "There are for trucks, and the highway routes are generally selected to minimize shipments through highly populated areas, but there aren't any equivalent regulations for rail." He suggests laws that prevent the use of two-way tunnels and require circuitous routing and dedicated trains.

"Why in the world would we allow spent fuel to be shipped in mixed-freight trains in the first place?" Halstead says. "And, secondly, if they were in mixed-freight trains, who would be stupid enough to run them through dangerous areas? Congress should just say, 'Bang, you will not ship any spent fuel in mixed-freight trains.' My god, what could be more common sense than that?"

His harsh critique of the existing waste-transport system notwithstanding, Halstead says he is not against nuclear power. "I personally think that there is a very good green case to be made for nuclear power," he says. But after years of studying the industry and how it's regulated, he says, he finds it "just pathetic that the people running this business are incapable of doing it technically and in a way that would have public confidence."

The public is going to have plenty of opportunity to express its confidence, or lack thereof, in the Yucca Mountain Project as it winds through the approval process. Based on NRC's assessment of the site's scientific and technical feasibility, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and President Bush are expected to give the plan the green light later this year. Then Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and that state's legislature will have an opportunity to veto that decision--something they're assured to do. Once Nevada rejects it, Congress gets the final say by a simple majority vote of both houses. Along the way, lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and coalitions of environmental groups will throw up roadblocks. All together, this level of contention is bound to attract big media attention and raise Yucca Mountain's profile as a national issue.

In the meantime, a major snafu has cast a shadow over Yucca. In late July, the Las Vegas Sun reported that for the last six years, the same Chicago law firm that the Department of Energy has been paying to provide legal services in support of Yucca Mountain has been lobbying on behalf of the NEI to get the project built. The firm, Winston & Strawn, and the NEI severed their relationship shortly after reporters called for comment on the apparent conflict of interest. "This situation," Guinn wrote to Abraham in an Aug. 1 letter, "presents serious issues concerning conflict of interest and possible bias in the site evaluation process" for Yucca Mountain.

Around the same time, in an incident seized upon by anti-Yucca forces to bolster their case, a leaking cask was discovered on a truck carrying low-level nuclear waste through Nevada. No radioactive material escaped, but the July 30 incident served as a reminder of a leaky container found on a truck in Arizona in 1997--and that one did release radioactivity, leading to a suspension of additional shipments until corrective measures were put in place. Guinn promptly fired off another letter to Abraham: "It appears DOE's protocol for the transportation of nuclear waste is seriously ineffective in protecting public health and the environment."

Critics' concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project aside, most everyone agrees that the technology doesn't exist today to allow the waste to be stored on-site at the nation's 72 nuclear-reactor sites for 10,000 years, until it has cooled off enough to be relatively safe. "It's gotta go someplace, it can't just stay around forever where it is," says Robert Jones, the former GE nuclear engineer. As the nation has already invested $6 billion to $8 billion in the Yucca site, Jones contends, we should move forward with it. But it will cost another $50 billion to bring the Yucca site online; rather than continue throwing good money after bad, Nevada's Sen. Reid contends, the Bush administration should scrap Yucca and start anew, finding another site or developing strategies to safely keep the waste where it is.

It remains to be seen how exercised the public will get over the potential hazards of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But as bad press, including the doubts about safety posed by the Baltimore fire, feeds into the collective realization that shipments are going to pass within a mile of an estimated 60 million U.S. residents over the course of 30 or 40 years, grass-roots opposition is bound to coalesce. If Resnikoff demonstrates that the Howard Street tunnel fire actually did burn at or about 1,500 degrees for more than a few hours--potentially enough to break a cask and cause a radioactive release--Yucca's opponents' arsenal will be stocked with a credible, real-life incident that raises serious doubts about the current framework for shipping the waste.

"The issue of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain is lurking on the national horizon," Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects executive director Robert Loux wrote in an Aug. 16 guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, "like a thousand-pound gorilla waiting to pounce."

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