Saturday, May 22, 1999

Movie on nuclear waste panned

Planners meet here on transport plans

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As they plan how to ship radioactive waste across the United States over the next several years, about 125 people gathered in Cincinnati Friday expressed a common goal: Assuring the public they have nothing to do with the Atomic Train.

        The representatives of citizens advisory boards (CABs) from 10 of the nation's 12 former nuclear weapons complex sites are attending a workshop through Sunday, sponsored by the CAB at the former Fernald uranium processing plant in Crosby Township.

        They are discussing the safety and cost of moving millions of tons of low-level and highly radioactive waste to permanent storage sites in Nevada, Utah and elsewhere.

        Many at the conference took issue with the accuracy of the shipping procedures portrayed in the May 17 NBC-TV movie, Atomic Train. The program showed a runaway train loaded with loose barrels of explosive nuclear material.

        “One of the things that troubles us most ... is the public fear and anxiety of transportation,” said Monte Wilson, chairman of the Idaho CAB's transportation committee. “And, certainly, irresponsible TV movies don't help any.”

        In some cities where nuclear waste shipping is a reality, television newscasts followed the movie by interviewing residents on the issue.

        Some waste sites, like Fernald, have programs already under way involving waste shipments. Others have not yet begun to plan.

        They have many different opinions on how to ship the waste, or whether they should move it at all — and will try to resolve some of those differences over the weekend.

        All participants are steeped in years of scientific reports and government bureaucracy. To them, the shipments are just one more step in a decades-long processes for cleaning up the Cold War-era nuclear mess left in their back yards.

        But they realize that to the public, anything tagged as nuclear or radioactive evokes sometimes irrational fear the size of a mushroom cloud. Their decisions — and the ways in which they are communicated — must be political as well as correct.

        “Every state, almost, is going to be affected by what we do,” said Bob Alcock, Department of Energy (DOE) senior adviser on transportation policy and planning.

        Even in Nevada, home to the nation's nuclear weapons test site, shipping puts people on edge like little else, said DOE Nevada's Kevin Rohrer. While site-based activities are isolated by miles of desert, trains and trucks move nuclear materials right past people's homes.

        CAB members worried that the DOE and other federal agencies are not communicating well with local communities. Small fire departments and town-level officials must be better informed and trained all along transportation routes to deal with a possible crisis.

        “Local communities have the emergency responses. ... (The federal government) must work with us. It does no good to deal with the states. And it's taking way too long,” said Pam Brown of the Hanford, Wash., advisory board.

        Representatives of other sites said they are not convinced that nuclear waste should be moved at all. Some believe it would be safer and cheaper to store and monitor piles of waste where they sit.

        “There ought to be a good reason to ship it off-site. It shouldn't just be transportation for transportation's sake,” said Sidney Blankenship of the CAB at the Adrian, Texas-based Pantex Plant. The site contains less than 1 percent of the nation's low-level nuclear waste, but is still working with enriched uranium.

        The CAB representatives will try to iron out some differences, but realize that if they ever reach consensus it won't come over a single weekend. Some broad statements may be endorsed by Sunday night and a dialogue will continue for years to come.

        “It's only through intersite collaboration and cooperation that we're going to be able to build a transportation network,” said Tom Wagner, vice-chair of Fernald's CAB. “It needs to be safe and cost-effective and get the job done.”


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