Monday, May 24, 1999

Group debates nuclear transport

Workshop gathered solutions

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Far from the halls of Congress and the tangle of government red tape, about 125 ordinary people this weekend began figuring out how to ship nuclear waste across the United States.

        The members of citizens advisory boards (CABs) from 10 of the nation's 12 former nuclear weapons complex sites participated in a workshop at the Vernon Manor hotel. It was sponsored by the CAB from one of those sites, the former Fernald uranium processing plant in Crosby Township.

        The delegates argued a little, found common ground a lot and came up with a series of statements telling the Department of Energy (DOE) how the controversial shipping program should be handled.

        They want to streamline the process and save taxpayers' money. They want to let the public know when radioactive waste is passing through their towns — and tell them whether it is relatively benign low-level waste or more threatening transuranic material.

        “I don't think the American people realize that the very

        small number of people in this room are making some very important decisions,” Mike Jacobs, a DOE spokesman from Fernald, told the group. “You may not all agree, but you're working on building a consensus.”

        Fernald is the first site in the complex to begin major shipping programs, with low-level radioactive waste moving since April by train to a commercial dump in Utah, and plans to resume truck shipments to the Nevada Test Site. The programs will continue through about 2008.

        As the rest of the sites begin to ship millions of tons of waste, a spider web of truck and rail routes will crisscross the country. Virtually every state will be affected.

        So the CABs, charged with representing the public in the vast government bureaucracy, want to ensure that people are told about the programs and trained to deal with potential emergencies.

        “The public needs to have an understanding of the relative dangers. I think if they understand that, they won't have as much of a problem” as uninformed people do when hearing about nuclear waste passing through their towns, said Gerald DePoorter of the Rocky Flats, Colo., CAB.

        Some officials are reluctant to tell people about low-level shipments that are not dangerous enough to fall under federal regulations. They fear a public-relations nightmare that could stall the cleanup process.

        But CAB members said people should have input at every stage of the process — with the understanding that current shipping programs can proceed while changes are discussed.

        And they want to streamline the shipping process by gaining top-down approval for some standard containers and methods, rather than having each site conduct individual tests and assessments.

        “There are a lot of plans that are already in place at some of these sites, and we don't want to reinvent the wheel,” said Jim Johnston of the Northern New Mexico CAB.

        Statements drafted at the workshop will go back to each site-specific CAB and could be passed as official recommendations to the DOE. And the department will take a look at the draft signed by most of the workshop delegates.

        “I'm not going to say the DOE will agree with everything, but there are some nuggets,” said Bob Alcock, DOE senior adviser on transportation policy and planning.

        And no matter how diverse their experiences and challenges, CABs working together carry more weight than any one CAB alone.

        “We need their help” in making transportation decisions, said Fred Butterfield, DOE senior staff member in the office of intergovernmental and public accountability. “The more consensus you have across sites, the more weight it will have.”


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