Friday, May 21, 1999

Nuclear waste shipments bring activists here for conference

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Activists from neighborhoods around the nation's former nuclear weapons production sites are circling their wagons this weekend in Cincinnati.

        Officials and Crosby Township neighbors of the former Fernald uranium processing plant will tell about low-level radioactive waste shipments. They will share their experiences and seek advice on how to blaze transport trails west.

        The Fernald Citizens Advisory Board (CAB) is host for a conference for members of other site-specific advisory boards today through Sunday at the Vernon Manor Hotel.

        They will compare trains and trucks, barrels and bins and discuss the cheapest, safest ways to move millions of tons of contaminated waste from sites across the country to dumps in Nevada and Utah. They will talk about the roadblocks likely to crop up along the way.

        “The Fernald cleanup is ahead of most of the other sites in the country. As a result, we have already become very involved with our transportation questions. We have a lot more information and experience,” said conference chairman Tom Wagner, the Fernald CAB's vice chairman.

        While the devil may be in the details — selecting specific routes and nailing down the most secure type of containers, for example — big issues are at stake.

        No federal regulation requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to notify the public when trains or trucks carrying low-level radioactive waste are passing by, so the decision falls to the individual sites shipping and receiving. Although the waste is classified as less dangerous than propane, gasoline and other chemicals moving on highways every day, officials expect a negative reaction to anything nuclear.

        “DOE doing its job of informing everybody can really stir things up and step into a hornet's nest,” said Earle Dixon, technical adviser to the CAB at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), which has been receiving low-level waste from about 15 sites for more than 20 years.

        “When you say nuclear, people think about Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Nagasaki — they don't think of all the benefits of nuclear (technology). ... The issue becomes, is public perception going to decide the issue, or is technical science” going to determine what's safe.

        As one of the first DOE cleanup sites in the country to have large-scale shipping programs under way, Fernald is already struggling.

        The site suffered the first major setback in December 1997 when a white container full of low-level waste on its way to Nevada leaked near Kingman, Ariz. Although there

        was no threat to public health or safety and steps have been taken to correct the problem, the shipping program was shut down and has not yet resumed.

        The incident was fodder for those who want to stop waste from being sent to Nevada.

        Officials there fear a pending federal measure that could designate NTS as the nation's primary receptacle for low-level waste and open the floodgates to much larger quantities of the stuff. And they worry that it could lead to construction of a controversial high-level nuclear waste dump site near NTS.

        So they are using the Kingman leak as an example of what could go wrong.

        “Technically, there was no radioactivity released and everything was managed correctly. ... But as far as the political or public acceptance of that issue, it's been inflated” by Nevada politicians, Mr. Dixon said. “They're sort of ringing the mobile Chernobyl.”

        It's a public relations battle that will be waged by more than a dozen other DOE cleanup sites, once they begin moving their waste out of their own back yards.

        “These are all people who have a vested interest, specifically in trans portation issues but more importantly in environmental restoration as a whole. All of these people have a stake in cleanup of all the DOE sites,” said Fluor Daniel Fernald spokeswoman Kathy Graham of the conference participants.

        Although site cleanup is big business — with an annual budget of $274 million at Fernald alone — no one wants to deal with the waste when it's done.

        Fernald CAB members wrestled with their desire to get rid of the legacy of nearly 40 years of Cold War-era uranium processing for good, and in the end balanced it with not wanting to thrust all of their problems on somebody else. The most inert waste will remain at Fernald in perpetuity, buried in monitored pits.

        Other cleanup sites are just beginning to deal with those issues.

        “There are two ends on a route that's involved in shipping. We're the originating site. But some of our stuff is going to Clive, Utah, and the rest to Nevada. We need to be very aware of the effect of that on the residents in those areas and on the shipping routes,” said Mr. Wagner of the Fernald CAB.

        “That's one of the things we've learned: It's not a one-dimensional issue. It's not just a Fernald issue. It really affects all of those other sites.”


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