President Tells Lawmakers, April 18, 2002
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Shipping tens of thousands of tons of deadly nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain would compromise the health and safety of millions, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told lawmakers today. Not only is the chance of a crash high, but the transport casks have not been adequately tested and the shipments would make prime terrorist targets, Claybrook said.
Claybrook testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. It was the first congressional hearing to examine the Yucca Mountain project since President Bush approved it in February.
"Transporting nuclear waste is inherently dangerous because it increases the likelihood of radioactive release and introduces this risk to densely populated areas where the emergency response and public health infrastructure may lack the capacity to respond effectively to a nuclear emergency," Claybrook said.
Following Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's recommendation to go forward with the project, Bush approved the plan to build a permanent repository for 70,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste from commercial reactors and Department of Energy (DOE) weapons facilities at Yucca Mountain, 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn vetoed the project April 8, and both houses of Congress will vote this spring whether to support or override his veto.
Transporting waste from current storage sites across the country would entail tens of thousands of shipments on roads, rails and waterways in 44 states and the District of Columbia. As former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Claybrook told lawmakers that the dangers raised by those shipments cannot be justified.
The administration has touted the safety record of nuclear waste transport, but it downplays the fact that there have been incidents in which radiation was released and that waste has never been shipped on such a massive scale. Since 1949, there have been 72 incidents involving nuclear waste shipments, four of which involved radioactive contamination beyond the transport vehicle, according to data compiled by the state of Nevada. General traffic crash rates also indicate the high likelihood of a disaster. In 1999, there were 453,000 crashes involving large trucks - 8,857 of them involving hazardous materials -and 2,768 train crashes.
In spite of the statistical certainty of crashes, the casks that would be used to transport the high- level waste have not been adequately tested. Physical tests were performed in the 1970s on now- obsolete casks, and current computer-model tests dangerously underestimate the conditions casks would need to withstand in a worst-case accident, Claybrook said.
The tests simulated crashes at speeds no higher than 30 miles per hour, submersion under water for only one hour and fires lasting only 30 minutes at 1475 degrees Fahrenheit. But no rules limit the casks to traveling at less than 30 mph, and a crash involving a river would likely mean a cask is submerged for far longer than one hour because of the logistics of pulling it out. Also, Claybrook noted that last summer's fire in Baltimore's Howard Street train tunnel burned more than three days and likely reached temperatures over 1500 degrees.
Claybrook also noted that the Sept. 11 attacks have raised the prospect of terrorist sabotage of nuclear waste shipments. Although Abraham has twice halted nuclear transports due to security concerns, officials have not addressed the security implications of the Yucca Mountain project.
An analysis by the state of Nevada indicated that a successful terrorist attack on a transport cask using a common military device could cause 300 to 1,800 latent cancer fatalities, while a state-of-the- art anti-tank weapon could cause 3,000 to 18,000 latent cancer deaths and cost more than $17 billion to clean up.
Further, the Yucca Mountain site itself is unsuitable, Claybrook said. It sits atop an aquifer and in an earthquake zone, and the site selection process has been rife with conflicts of interest and industry influence, including millions spent on lobbying and campaign contributions to decisionmakers.
The DOE's long history of investing in wasteful ventures, combined with the numerous technical, environmental and policy issues that remain unresolved with the project, suggest that Yucca Mountain is poised to become another contaminated site and taxpayer boondoggle, Claybrook said.
She recommended to the subcommittee that it uphold Guinn's veto, hold hearings in major cities along waste transportation routes and maintain vigorous oversight of any repository proposal or nuclear waste management program.
A copy of the testimony is available at http://www.citizen.org/documents/yuccatestfinal.PDF.
Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.