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Rails Get Nod

DOE wants most high-level radioactive waste to take the train to the Yucca Mountain repository

by Jeff Johnson
April 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 17

Trains will carry most radioactive waste in 150-ton barbell-like canisters, shown here shrouded with a blue cover.
Trains will carry most radioactive waste in 150-ton barbell-like canisters, shown here shrouded with a blue cover.

Railroads will move most high-level radioactive waste across the U.S. to the Department of Energy's underground repository being planned for Nevada's Yucca Mountain, under a proposal announced by DOE this month.

The waste, mostly spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants, will crisscross the nation, coming from some 127 sites for 24 years, DOE says.

Each year, Nevada residents will see roughly 400 specially designed railcars holding 150-ton casks entering their state, as well as some 40 standard-sized trucks hauling smaller casks under the plan. The exact number of trains or trucks is unclear since DOE is considering options from a single cask to as many as five casks per train.

Also, a handful of nuclear waste sites lack rail access, and it is unclear how their waste will be shipped. Barges and supersized trucks capable of hauling the larger canisters, as well as regular trucks, are being considered for the six locations that lack rail spurs, DOE says.

The plan will entail construction of a new 319-mile rail line within Nevada to move the big canisters to the repository's door.

DOE had been considering an all-truck hauling scenario, and this would have entailed 2,200 truckloads of nuclear waste rolling into Nevada annually. Nobody liked this scenario (C&EN, Jan. 6, 2003, page 21).

Most of the waste will be moved from 72 commercial nuclear power plant sites, where radioactive spent fuel rods are being stored in pools of water or in dry casks and are piling up while waiting for the government to design, permit, and build the underground repository.

Waste also will come from five DOE sites and from U.S. research reactors where high-level radioactive waste has also been generated and stored.

Under the shipment-by-rail plan, the waste will traverse the country in huge containers. The rail casks will weigh 125 to 150 tons and will carry about 10 or so tons of actual waste; truck containers will weigh about 25 tons and carry about 2 tons of spent fuel. DOE says in both cases the rest of the load is shielding and protection.

DOE is under great pressure from nuclear power companies to move the waste off their land. The demand has become particularly acute because energy companies are planning for a new round of nuclear power plants and have successfully applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for license extensions to operate their plants for 20 years beyond their current 40-year lifetimes.

All this means that the size of the rail plan, the 24-year time frame for shipping, and the tonnage moved are all going to grow.

By law, Congress limited Yucca Mountain's capacity to 70,000 metric tons of waste. But the amount of spent fuel and other waste being generated is nearly double that amount. Nuclear power advocates will press Congress to raise the storage limit when and if Yucca Mountain is proven to be a viable waste solution.

DOE aims to have the repository built and ready to accept waste by 2010, but it has a long way to go. The agency hopes to submit a construction permit application to NRC by the end of this year. NRC must process the permit within three years, although it can seek a one-year extension.

However, just last week, the commission warned DOE that the department must improve the quality of its technical submissions to ensure that the review does not extend beyond the three-year legal limit.

DOE is also facing litigation from the State of Nevada and environmental groups over the repository, and a judicial opinion on a series of suits is expected this summer.

DOE and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear trade association, are quite positive about the rail plan. They note that over the past 30 years more than 2,700 shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been completed without an "identified injury" caused by a leak of radioactive material.

THIS EXPERIENCE in the U.S. and abroad is significant, says a recent report by the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, a science panel set up to review DOE's Yucca Mountain decisions. But the board also notes that these past activities do not approach the scale of the new proposal.

The board criticizes DOE for a lack of detail in its transportation planning and says its proposal should better reflect the undertaking's complexity and scale. It urges better scheduling and planning, for instance, as well as greater communication with regional and local governments.

It also warns DOE that it should not underestimate the need for trucks and the impact that more trucks may have on the plan. It particularly notes that shipping by truck may be called for in the Nevada portion of the transportation plan, where a new rail line must be constructed.

The board also notes the importance of emergency planning to states and communities along the transportation path to ensure an adequate response in the event of an accident. The board points out that planners of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, the nation's only other underground nuclear waste repository, spent seven years working with states to develop community relationships and provide emergency response training before the first shipment to WIPP was ever made.

The review did consider terrorism, DOE says, but the proposal does not predict when such an attack might occur or in what form. The department stresses that a successful attack on a railcar would be less likely to emit radioactivity because the casks are strong and thick.

Next to come will be an environmental impact statement further spelling out the transportation plan.



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