In preparation for the expected transportation of nuclear waste from Oak Ridge National Laboratory through Chattanooga and on to Carlsbad, N.M., later this year, local emergency crews learned Monday about the radioactive material and the trucks and containers that carry it.
Personnel from the Cleveland Police Department, Cleveland and Athens fire departments and McMinn County, Cleveland/Bradley County and Tennessee emergency management agencies took part in the teaching exercise. They examined trucks carrying waste containment vessels, spoke with drivers and asked questions about the transportation process off Interstate 75.
“It’s kind of the first time we’ve seen anything like this,” said Lt. David Newman with the Athens Fire Department. “We get a little bit of reassurance on how safe they are.”
Weight, with waste material — 45,000 pounds
Number per truck — 1
Weight, with waste material — 19,250 pounds
Number per truck — 3
Source: TRU Solutions, LLC
Teaching local law enforcement agencies about the trucks and materials is important because they respond first to any accidents in their areas, said William Mackie, manager of institutional programs for the U.S. Department of Energy.
“The more they know about it, the more comfortable I am that they can do their job,” he said.
Mr. Mackie stressed the safety of the stainless-steel vessels, which are either cylindrical or dumbbell-shaped and are owned by the department. The cylindrical vessels carry a lesser degree of radioactive material and can be handled by peoplle. The dumbbell-shaped vessels carry a higher degree of radioactive material and are handled robotically.
Each of the smaller vessels is placed inside much larger, protective casings before being loaded on the trucks. The vessels produce a negligible amount of radiation, Mr. Mackie said.
On Monday, all vessels were empty. They eventually will carry radioactive waste consisting of protective gear, tools, lab equipment and sludge that have come in contact with spent nuclear fuel rods or weapons-grade plutonium, officials said.
About three trucks weekly will pass through the Chattanooga area, eventually carrying 60 to 120 shipments out of Oak Ridge over five years, said Bobby St. John, media coordinator for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, where the material will be buried underground.
Two drivers are required to be in each vehicle at all times, and they can communicate to the outside world via cell phones, satellite phones and radios, among other devices, Mr. Mackie said.
“These are the safest vehicles on the road,” he said. “They’re tracked 24 hours a day by satellite when they’re full.”
The trucks will follow the same route from Oak Ridge through the Southeast, from state Highway 162 to Interstate 75 to Interstate 24 to Interstate 59 to Interstate 20. Transportation will begin later this year, as long as the Oak Ridge site receives approval from the Environmental Protection Agency, officials said.
The New Mexico site takes only solid waste and has been doing so since 1999, Mr. St. John said. Minor accidents have occurred involving the trucks, but the truck drivers never have been found at fault, he said.
Driver James Wilcox with Visionary Solutions has driven trucks loaded with radioactive vessels for 7 1/2 years. All drivers take part in training such as how to handle hazardous materials, Department of Energy regulations and the protocols and rules at each containment site, he said.
“It’s second nature to me, I’ve done it so long,” he said. “If anything does go wrong, we have training in that.”
The drivers and Department of Energy members will host presentations in Georgia and Alabama today and finish with a large event in Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday.