Friday, April 30, 1999

Fernald waste facing roadblocks

Nevada protests transport

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fernald area residents don't want it. Officials in Clark County, Nev., don't even want it passing through. But roughly 3 million cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste must wind its way from the former uranium processing plant in Crosby Township to the Nevada Test Site dumping ground.

        And it has to happen soon, if the Department of Energy (DOE) and site manager Fluor Daniel Fernald are to avoid schedule and cost overruns on the high-profile, 10-year cleanup project.

        DOE officials hope to have the first truckloads of contaminated soil, debris and ash moving out of Fernald next month. They want to have a shipping plan in place today.

        Yet Clark County commissioners are doing everything they can to put on the brakes. They passed a resolution last week against allowing Fernald waste to move along certain county roads — although they have no power over decisions being made at the federal level.

        They say the shipping routes most favored by DOE would move the waste along one of two narrow, winding and accident-prone state roads. Others would have trucks moving through the rapidly sprawling, highly populated Las Vegas metropolitan area.

        “We realize that DOE has a good (safety) record. But it only takes once” to cause a disaster, said Dennis Bechtel, planning manager with the Clark County comprehensive planning nuclear waste division.

        Pointing to a December 1997, leak near Kingman, Ar iz., that stopped the cross-country shipping program in its tracks, he noted that accidents can and do happen. Fernald will dispatch an average of five to seven trucks per week through 2008.

        “The whole (county) commission is not pleased. ... It boggles my mind that DOE would consider anything with a high potential for an accident.”

        This Fernald cleanup effort, which has not resumed since the 1997 accident, is one of two massive cross-country shipping programs originating at the site. The other, which got under way Monday, involves trainloads of waste being moved to a commercial dumping ground in Clive, Utah.

        The shipments to Utah should be complete in 2005.

        Fernald is on the leading edge of a nationwide effort to clean up defunct Cold War-era nuclear weapons production sites. Although it is the first site to do the greatest amount of cross-country shipping, others will follow over the next several years.

        Experts and officials nationwide are watching the current effort — and many are not pleased by what they see.

        “The entire program is a mess,” said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Takoma Park, Md.-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a national watchdog organization critical of nuclear proliferation. There are no standard rules for shipping radioactive waste across the United States, Mr. Makhijani noted.

        DOE officials say they are mindful of local officials' concerns at both ends of proposed 2,000-mile routes between Fernald and the Nevada Test Site. They have ruled out paths over Hoover Dam and through downtown Las Vegas. Plans call for trucks to limit their movements on high-risk rural roads to late-night, low-traffic hours.

        And DOE is working on a shipping plan that would have the waste moved from Fernald across the Nevada state line by rail cars and then transferred to trucks for the final stretch across eastern Nevada into the test site. But that is not likely to get under way until late this fall, if ever.

        Rail shipping is thought to be safer and cheaper than moving waste by truck.

        Clark County officials are encouraged by the rail-to-truck plan, but they fear that it will be sidelined once truck shipments get started.

        “Our concern is that these routes will happen and then DOE becomes settled in and the other (method) is forgotten,” Mr. Bechtel said. “We are sort of the canary in the mine right now ... but other communities are going to be concerned as well” as other national radioactive waste disposal programs get under way.

        Darwin Morgan, spokesman for the DOE's Nevada operation, said he understands that people fear seeing a “radioactive” tag on a train or truck. But nuclear materials move throughout the country every day in a variety of industries — as do other, more immediately dangerous chemical and toxic substances.

        “Radiation is an issue that people don't understand ... and it evokes fear,” he said.

        But low-level shipments have been moving to the Nevada Test Site for more than 20 years “and we haven't had any accidents that have led to a fatality or serious (injury).”

        The 1,350-square-mile Nevada Test Site receives waste from more than 15 sites nationwide. But Fernald, with the highest volume and the recent Kingman spill marring its record, is attracting most of the attention.

        Fernald's Citizens Advisory Board, through which residents and local officials can have a say in clean-up decisions, is hosting a national transportation conference in May. Advisory board members from other DOE cleanup sites will attend.

        And DOE officials also are beginning to take a hard look at the way potentially dangerous radioactive waste is being moved.

        “We have been wrestling with some of these national issues and transportation is one that we've been pushing hard,” said Mr. Bechtel, who also sits on the DOE Environmental Management Advisory Board. “I think that if we push from the top down and the bottom up, something might happen.”


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