Feds Begin Transporting Nuclear
Waste Through Texas To NM
By Bill Miller
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

ARLINGTON - Federal energy officials today begin a 34-year program to ship nuclear waste by truck to New Mexico - a route that includes most of Interstate 20 and a portion of U.S. 285 in Texas.
The first shipments are from Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., and will include items such as gloves, shoe covers, rags and tools that were exposed to plutonium and discarded during the production of nuclear weapons. The material is destined for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., where it will be stored nearly a half-mile underground in rooms surrounded by massive salt deposits.
The trucks will travel nearly 650 miles of highway in Texas, with nearly 600 of that on I-20.
"This is all part of taking care of the legacy of the Cold War," said Tom Welch, a spokesman for the U.S. Energy Department in Washington.
Arlington Mayor Elzie Odom said he has been briefed on the program and is confident in the agency's safety precautions.
"I have been assured that there is no immediate hazard to our people," Odom said.
Arlington emergency management officials will be notified whenever a truck leaves Savannah River. Federal officials estimate there will be 1,829 shipments.
But the leader of a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant watchdog group said there is some risk in transportation.
"If it's handled correctly, people in your part of the world won't be exposed to waste, but if there is an accident, there could be a release," said Don Hancock, executive director of Southwest Research and Information Center of Albuquerque, N.M.
"The reason we're spending billions of dollars burying stuff 2,150 feet underground isn't because we need to find a place to put booties and gloves," he said. "It's because this stuff is contaminated with plutonium. Microscopic amounts of it can cause fatal lung cancer. That's a problem."
Energy Department officials are confident in the safety of the complex transportation system: Large stainless-steel storage casks, described as "virtually impenetrable," will be hauled by trucks that are tracked by satellites and driven by specially trained drivers who are required to follow stringent safety protocols.
According to an Energy Department fact sheet, the activities at the pilot plant are just part of the nation's nuclear weapons cleanup challenge. For example, the agency says it must also deal with 1.7 trillion gallons of contaminated groundwater and 40 million cubic meters of contaminated soil and debris.
The agency concludes that the size of the nationwide cleanup will require "long-term care and monitoring -- or stewardship -- for potentially hundreds of years at an estimated 109 sites."
The department estimates it will spend as much as $212 billion through 2070 to get rid of waste from the nation's weapons plants.
Pilot plant officials said the material from Savannah River is "contact handled transuranic," or CH- TRU, waste, which emits radioactive alpha rays that are dangerous only if inhaled or ingested.
"It won't penetrate a piece of paper, or your skin," said Dan Balduini, spokesman for Westinghouse TRU Solutions, the company that operates the pilot plant through a contract with the Energy Department. "It's not like you would get immediate radiation poisoning.
"It has a long-term effect: 20 years down the line there is a possibility that you would develop a cancer," he said.
Pilot plant officials confirm that increasingly more radioactive shipments are scheduled to begin about 2004 from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
This "remote handled transuranic," or RH-TRU, waste is considered more dangerous because it emits gamma rays, which can penetrate the human body.
Energy Department officials estimate there will be 473 shipments from Oak Ridge. Earlier projections called for 1,276 loads, but Balduini said that number was reduced by consolidating material.
Balduini noted, however, that before the more hazardous waste can leave Oak Ridge, the pilot plant must finish designing a more robust cask capable of shielding gamma rays.
"There is no reason to be any more alarmed," he said. "It's not the same thing as what you'd encounter from nuclear fuel or a reactor core. It can't cause fission. But I don't want to minimize it.
"It is dangerous. It is toxic. It requires shielding."
What it means to you
The Energy Department today begins a 34-year program to ship nuclear waste by truck on Interstate 20. Federal, state and local officials say the possibility of an accidental release of radiation is diminished by a complex transportation system that includes large stainless-steel storage casks hauled by trucks that are tracked by satellites and driven by specially trained drivers who follow strict safety protocols. Officials say the trucks have no planned stops as they pass through Texas, including Tarrant County. In case of an accident, local emergency "first responders" are trained to contain an accident and await help from Energy Department cleanup crews. The waste is destined for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.
Web sites:
U.S. Department of Energy
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Southwest Research and Information Center
Savannah River Site
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
New Mexico Environmental Evaluation Group
Bill Miller, (817) 548-5425
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