Shipments of nuclear waste through Chattanooga will increase 700 percent this summer as the Department of Energy begins moving leftover material from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to a storage site in New Mexico, DOE officials said.
This is in addition to shipments of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods that have been trucked through Chattanooga since 1996, DOE spokesman Walter Perry said Friday.
The new shipments of transuranic waste consist of protective gear, tools, lab equipment and sludge that have come in contact with spent fuel rods or weapons-grade plutonium, federal and state officials said. The waste will be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M.
More than 6,400 shipments of waste have moved across the nation to the plant that opened in 1999, Mr. Perry said.
“During this time, there has never been a radiation leak during transportation,” he said. “The Department of Energy’s top priority is to ensure health and safety when transporting nuclear waste materials.”
But nuclear waste expert Don Hancock, who has studied the Carlsbad plant since planning for it began 30 years ago, said the material is dangerous and could be more high risk than the U.S. government classifies it to be.
The material can be a terrorist target, and if an accident occurs, the dangers increase even more, he said.
“Gloves and booties don’t sound very dangerous, so why are they potential terrorist targets?” said Mr. Hancock, director of the nuclear waste program for the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, N.M.
“This is plutonium-contaminated waste. If you know anything about plutonium, it is one of the most hazardous materials that exists, if it is inside your body,” he said. “The accident to be concerned about is the one with a fire that puts respiratory plutonium in the air. You can have thousands of people at risk with not much you can do about it.”
TRANSURANIC WASTE AND SPENT FUEL RODS
Mr. Perry said 66 to 70 truckloads of transuranic waste will be shipped annually through Chattanooga.
All nuclear materials are transported in sealed containers capable of withstanding high-speed accidents and several-hundred-degree fires, Mr. Perry said. The materials are delivered in trucks clearly marked as transporting hazardous materials, he said. Satellites track each shipment.
The trucks will travel Interstate 75 to Interstate 24, then take Interstate 59 south to connect with Interstate 20 near Birmingham, Ala.
Those trucks will be in addition to the ones that come through about 10 times a year to take spent nuclear fuel rods from Oak Ridge to the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. The Aiken site also ships nuclear waste once or twice a year through Chattanooga to the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho, DOE officials said.
Oak Ridge began shipping fuel rods through Chattanooga in 1996, Mr. Perry said. Those rods left over from powering ORNL’s high flux isotope reactor contain the very highest levels of radioactivity, he said.
SAFETY A PRIORITY
Bill Tittle, chief of emergency management for Hamilton County, said his office has known for three years that transuranic waste shipments would start. County emergency management personnel regularly train for radiological spills because the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant is here, he said.
He’s convinced the containers are safe.
“They’re so tough you can pick them up with a crane and drop them and they wouldn’t bust,” Mr. Tittle said.
Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt said the state has been told to expect about 77 shipments of transuranic waste.
Thirty-three shipments are classified as “very, very low level” and 44 shipments will be a “higher level,” he said.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol and TEMA officials will escort the trucks carrying the nuclear material, he said.
Local emergency officials in the counties along the route also will be aware of the shipments.
“Every EMA along that corridor is trained,” Mr. Heidt said.
But Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., said the containers were built on 1960s guidelines.
“People have noted for a long time that there can be accidents that exceed those conditions they set,” Mr. Lyman said.
Laura Lefler, spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Friday his office knew about the planned shipments.
“We are aware and have been assured that the appropriate safeguards are being taken to protect the safety of the cargo and those who live along its route,” Ms. Lefler said.
Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., could not be reached for comment Friday.
Lee Pitts, spokesman for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said shipping of nuclear waste to New Mexico is not new.
“That’s been done over millions of miles since 1999 without an accident,” he said. “Each shipment is carefully monitored to maintain this excellent safety record.”
Mr. Hancock said accidents have been reported involving trucks carrying nuclear material, although no leaks have been reported.
The biggest concern with the Oak Ridge shipments is that they include the most highly potent waste, he said.
Much of the material, called “remote-handled transuranic waste” has been made into sludge, which is highly radioactive, he said. Even with safeguards, the radiation can go through protective gear, he said.
The containers used by DOE are some of the best on the market, Mr. Hancock said.
But the fear of one breaking open always exists, he said.
“Some of this remote-handled stuff, it’s potent enough that if it breaks open, people could be dead immediately,” he said.
Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...