The Future is Now for High-Level Nuclear Waste

By Erica Olsen
  • Friday, August 8, 1997

Nevadans did not plan to deal with high-level nuclear waste shipments until (or if) Yucca Mountain gets approved. But high-level waste is entering the state earlier than expected. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will ship spent nuclear fuel rods from foreign research reactors from Concord through northern Nevada to Idaho Falls starting in 1998. This is not the first time high-level nuclear waste will come through the state, but it is the first time for northern Nevada. All Nevada congressional representatives, along with Governor Miller, have voiced concerns the DOE has yet to tackle. Californians are taking a more active approach—environmentalists and conservative politicians—have joined together to protest the shipments. Nothing can be done to stop the shipments, but politicians are attempting to influence the route the DOE chooses.

Keeping the World a Safe Place

Under the Atoms for Peace Program initiated by President Eisenhower, the United States shared nuclear technology with foreign governments. Now spent fuel is being returned from Pacific Rim countries such as Taiwan, Korea and Japan. About 41 countries will turn over spent fuel for processing and storage in Savannah, Ga. and Idaho Falls, Idaho. The plan is to take 4.6 metric tons of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium out of civilian commerce worldwide to reduce the chance of fuel ending up in the hands of foreign terrorists or hostile governments. The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) will receive 162 to 187 casks of fuel over 13 years. DOE plans on four to five shipments through Nevada with the first shipment in 1998 coming from South Korea and Indonesia. The second shipment will not occur for another two years.

Bureaucratic Reasoning

The waste will be shipped by boat to the Bay-area Concord Naval Weapons Station, where the casks will be immediately unloaded onto trains and shipped out that day. According to the DOE, rail was selected instead of highways because the amount of waste exceeds safety regulations for highway carriers. There are two proposed rail routes, both running through Nevada. The preferred route runs from Concord north through the Feather River Canyon across the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, then through Lovelock, Winnemucca, Carlin, Elko, into Ogden, Utah and then finally to Idaho Falls. The second alternative route runs from Concord over Donner Pass to Reno, up to Winnemucca then follows the remainder of the first route to Idaho Falls.

Californians are staunchly against the radioactive spent fuel being transported through the Feather River Canyon because it is the main water supply for the southern part of the state. However, the DOE has chosen this route because it wants to avoid transporting shipments through downtown Reno. This route is also more direct. Either way, shipments will run through northern Nevada.

But the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects is encouraging the DOE to avoid both of these routes altogether. Although the Concord port was chosen because it is a military installation, the state of Nevada wants to know why the shipments should come to a military base so far south. The Bremerton Naval Submarine Base is located near Seattle and is much closer to Idaho Falls than Concord. It also routinely handles nuclear waste. The DOE Idaho Operations Office said this route is not an option because the Navy requested that the DOE not interfere with bases or maintenance facilities used extensively for warships. Bremerton receives more warship traffic than Concord. But communities located on rail lines running from Seattle to INEEL have already received costly emergency response training in case of an accident involving high-level radioactive waste because shipments have been transported through this area.

The Concerns

In a letter to Energy Secretary Federico Pena, Miller voiced concern about the DOE’s performance. He wrote, "While there is the need to assure that spent fuel from foreign research reactors is appropriately managed and cannot be diverted to weapons uses, the program for returning the fuel to the United States must not jeopardize the health and safety of our citizens. Nevada is prepared to work with the DOE to achieve the nonproliferation goals of the program, but we will not permit the DOE to sacrifice safety for the sake of expediency or arbitrary schedules."

Miller has strongly requested emergency training for Nevada communities. According to Miller’s office, the DOE promised funding to help train local emergency personnel, Hazmat employees and hospitals. However, nothing has materialized. Also, DOE officials only recently began to involve citizens in communities to be affected by the shipments. Local governments have not been contacted. No public comment was solicited in Nevada. Both Senators Reid and Bryan are angry that the DOE only held hearings in Concord and Idaho. According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, they, along with Miller, plan to block the shipments. However South Carolina, which will receive 300 shipments compared to Idaho’s five shipments, unsuccessfully challenged the DOE’s plan to transport spent fuel to the Savannah River Site.

This litigation effort proved that the DOE met all National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements. It performed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is supposed to look at all possible alternatives, solicit public comments and collect information on the effect of a proposed project. The conclusion should lead to the best alternative for the environment and the people involved. The DOE performed the EIS to meet the minimal requirements, excluding Nevada and leaving questions unanswered about the Bremerton option. However, it is very difficult to successfully challenge a federal agency after the sufficient completion of an EIS—South Carolina found out the hard way.


Although no state wants nuclear spent fuel transported through its territory, America made a commitment to foreign countries that must be honored. The spent fuel is less dangerous than most people realize. It is not liquid or gaseous, rather it is a solid that, in the event of an accident, can be cleaned up more completely than a chemical spill, for example. The EIS stated that the casks, which weigh 10 to 25 tons, will withstand 99.4 percent of truck and rail accidents without sustaining damage sufficient to breach transportation casks. Further the accident with the highest probability (one in a thousand) would be the radioactive material reaching critical mass during chemical separation, a process only performed at INEEL.

From a Nevada perspective, the DOE handled this situation poorly by totally ignoring us and not looking critically at all alternative routes. However, the decision has been made and no amount of letter writing will prevent the shipments from coming through Nevada. Keeping in mind past track records of nuclear waste shipments and the safety of the transportation casks, the chances of radiation leakage is minuscule. As for the DOE, hopefully it will solicit Nevada’s input regarding future projects.

Erica Olsen is an NPRI research analyst.

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