Nukes On Our Roads




S

everal recent accidents on
U.S. interstate highways involving trucks carrying radioactive materials
have revealed heightened activity in the transportation of such
dangerous materials, as well as new growth in the nation’s
nuclear infrastructure. 


Earlier in the Bush II years, Mary Olsen, of the nuclear watchdog
Nuclear Information and Resource Center (NIRS), warned, “New
nuclear policies of the Bush administration are making new nuclear
programs that in turn are resulting in a massive increase in the
number of radioactive cargo shipments over the next several years…and
for years to come.” 


Last December 21 a flatbed truck carrying 6,000 pounds of uranium
flipped on its side while exiting Interstate 95 West in central
North Carolina. The truck’s journey had begun at the Portsmouth
Marine Terminal near Norfolk, Virginia. Its destination was Global
Nuclear Fuel America, a facility in Wilmington, North Carolina that
makes nuclear fuel rods for commercial nuclear power plants. 


According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a nuke industry
promoter, after uranium is extracted from the earth, it is filtered,
dried, and packaged into a substance called yellowcake, or uranium
oxide. This is then taken to a conversion plant where it is turned
into uranium hexafluoride. “The uranium hexafluoride,”
the NEI states, “is heated to become a gas, then loaded into
cylinders where it is cooled and condensed to a solid.” 


Next the uranium hexafluoride is sent to an enrichment plant. The
United States Enrichment Co. (USEC) in Paducah, Kentucky is the
sole such facility in the U.S. There the substance’s uranium-235,
which will be used to fuel nuclear reactors, is increased from 1
percent to 3.5 percent of the weight of the substance, with uranium-238
(also known as depleted uranium) being the balance of the enriched
uranium. Finally the enriched uranium is sent to a nuclear fuel
fabrication plant, like Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF) in Wilmington,
North Carolina. GNF is a partnership of General Electric, Toshiba,
and Hitachi. According to GE, “GNF is comprised of manufacturing
and fuel service facilities in the United States and Japan, as well
as Spain.” GE and Hitachi are also forming another partnership
to facilitate the construction of new nuclear plants around the
planet. 


In the U.S., 18 sites are being considered for the construction
of 30 or more new nuclear plants. On January 8 two Japanese newspapers
announced that the Japanese government “will provide trade
insurance for [Japanese] firms helping to construct nuclear power
plants in the U.S.” One of the newspapers, the

Yomiuri Shimbun

,
said that Japanese plants are expected to help build all the U.S.
new nukes “under a Japan-U.S. corporate alliance.” On
January 10, U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and Japanese
Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Akira Amari met in Washington
to announce their Global Nuclear Energy Partnership under which
they will help one another build new nuclear power plants. 



“No Contamination” 



T

he

Raleigh News & Observer

reported
on December 23 that the truck that flipped was carrying “low-grade
uranium powder.” It also reported, “Tom Rumsey, a spokesperson
for Global Nuclear, said the overturned truck was one of four on
its way to Global Nuclear.… The facility receives up to 15
shipments a month.”



The article stated that the 6,000 pounds of radioactive powder was
“in polycarbonate-lined stainless steel drums, which in turn
are placed inside heavy metal shipping containers secured to a flatbed
trailer.” Lee Cox of the North Carolina Radiation Protection
agency told the RNO that “the outermost containers of the overturned
truck remained securely bolted to the trailer after the crash.” 


“There was no material, no contamination, no risk,” Cox
said. However, there was also no mention of the condition of the
steel drums inside the shipping containers. A report from Eric McErlain
of the Nuclear Energy Institute stated, “A note from our friends
at GE: team of GNF was dispatched to the scene and found the containers
carrying the uranium were ‘virtually undamaged.’ They
were reloaded and arrived at the facility in Wilmington at 6:00
AM [on 12/22].” 


McErlain said the cargo was “low grade uranium or low-enriched
uranium,” which “when properly fabricated into fuel pellets
provides the heat source for nuclear reactors in the United States.” 


McErlain’s friends at GE also told him that if the uranium
had spilled, “the only risk for exposure is if the powder is
inhaled or ingested, which can easily be avoided by the use of standard
protective equipment.” Unfortunately most drivers on the nation’s
interstates don’t carry such equipment. 


McErlain added, “Out of 45 million radioactive material packages
that have been shipped since 1971, accidents involved about 3,500.
Of these, only 197 containing low level radiation sustained damage
or failed, and in some accidents, released a small amount of material.”
Even a small amount of radioactive material, however, can pose a
large risk to those contaminated by it. Last November Russian dissident
Alexander Litvinenko found this out after someone slipped a radioactive
mickey in his drink in London and he received a lethal dose. 



Exclusion Zone 



A

New York blogger and opponent of the Indian
Point nuke plants in that state, who goes by the monicker of Porgie
Tirebiter, conducted his own investigation of the accident and posted
some very interesting information. Tirebiter began looking into
the accident after he saw it reported on CNN, December 21, “with
a single photo of the truck lying on its side…more details
to follow. Problem is, those details never came forward.” 


Tirebiter reported that Lee Cox of NC Radiation Protection told
him over the phone that Lt. Mark Dalton of the NC Highway Patrol
had declared the accident scene an exclusion zone, thus barring
the media. Then Alan Maybry of Global Nuclear told Tirebiter “that
the response team for the incident involved several hundred emergency
responders.” Tirebiter also reported that one of the responding
officials told him that a Homeland Security “incident commander”
was at the accident scene. 


Tirebiter also uncovered several more significant pieces of information
otherwise unreported by the media. Donny Lester, one of the owners
of Tri-State Motor Transport, whose truck flipped, “explained
that…the fuel was from overseas, had been shipped into America
on a cargo vessel…from some foreign country. They would not
or could not identify the country of origin for these materials,
so I called Lee Cox who verified that the material was from Kurihama,
Japan.” 


Kurihama is the site of Global Nuclear Fuel-Japan. On March 6, 2006,

Business Wire

reported that the company “has been awarded
a contract by Chuba Electric Company to provide Mixed Oxide Fuel
[MOX] for the utility’s Hamoaka nuclear power plant.”
Global Nuclear Fuel’s CEO Jack Fuller said, “GNF is deeply
honored and excited to receive this landmark order for MOX fuel
from Chuba.” MOX is nuclear fuel made of plutonium and uranium.
It’s reclaimed, or “reprocessed” from “spent”
(commercially spent, highly radioactive, and weapons grade) fuel
no longer usable in nuclear reactors—or from radwaste left
over from nuclear weapons production. 






The
U.S. Department of Energy has 34 metric tons of “surplus”
plutonium it needs to dispose of under a 2000 agreement with Russia.
It wants to build a MOX reprocessing plant at the Savannah River Site
in South Carolina. In April 2005 the Associated Press reported that
a shipment of MOX arrived in Charleston, South Carolina from France,
which already reprocesses spent nuclear fuel into MOX. 


The AP reported that “Duke Power spokesperson Rose Cummings
said the MOX fuel…will be tested at the Catawba Nuclear Station
on Lake Wylie…about 20 miles south of Charlotte.” The
MOX plan is another phenomena that increases the transportation
of radioactive materials on our highways and in our ports. It also
demonstrates the globalization of the transportation of these materials
by the established nuclear powers. 



Nuclear Hex 



A

nother such disturbing story appeared on
January 4. The Associated Press reported, “An Oakland [California]
bound truck carrying radioactive material from a nuclear plant in
Paducah [Kentucky] was involved in a crash with another vehicle.”
The truck was one of four that had just left the Paducah Gaseous
Diffusion Plant that morning. Each was carrying 5,000 pounds of
uranium hexafluoride, a radioactive compound “used during the
uranium enrichment process,” which in turn is “used to
fuel nuclear reactors,” the AP reported. Uranium hexafluoride
is also used in the production of nuclear weapons, according to
NIRS. The local sheriff’s department stated, “There was
no chemical spill in the wreck outside the plant on U.S. 60 in West
Paducah.” Spokesperson Elizabeth Stuckle of United States Enrichment
(USEC), which operates the Paducah plant, said, “The material
was headed for the Port of Oakland in California to be shipped to
an overseas customer.” 


Stuckle told the AP, “USEC ships about 1200 cylinders of the
substance on about 300 trucks in a typical year. USEC supplies 27
percent of the world’s uranium, providing fuel for 150 reactors
on three continents.” The AP also reported, “USEC contracts
with Transport Logistics International, the largest transporter
of nuclear material within the United States.” 


On January 8, the

New Virginian

newspaper, located in Virginia’s
western Appalachian region, reported that, “Interstate 81 could
soon become a major East Coast shipping route for nuclear waste
destined for a New Mexico dumping ground.” I-81 runs the whole
length of the western side of the state. “Plans call for roughly
147 shipments of leftovers from Cold War-era nuclear weapons tests,”
the newspaper reported, “to come from sites in New York, New
Jersey and Pennsylvania, the Department of Energy confirmed.” 


The first six shipments are slated to start next year at Babcock
& Wilcox’s facility in Lynchburg, Virginia. That company
builds nuclear reactors, most infamously the one that suffered a
partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. Lynchburg also hosts
Framatome ANP, which, along with Global Nuclear Fuel and Westinghouse,
are the U.S. companies that manufacture nuclear fuel rods. 


The type of waste to be transported is called transuranic waste,
highly radioactive waste that includes, most notably, plutonium,
one of the most toxic substances in the world. Despite this, Gary
Shirley of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management told
the

New Virginian

: “[Transuranic waste is] a relatively
innocuous compound, non-harmful unless you do something stupid…like
eat it.” One speck of plutonium breathed into your lungs most
likely will doom you to develop cancer. 


The destination of these radioactive shipments will be the Waste
Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. There it will
end up in deep underground caverns. WIPP opened in 1999, and is
the nation’s only dump for transuranic radwaste. The

New
Virginian

reported, “So far only two of the more than 5,000
deliveries to WIPP have resulted in more than just fender benders,
experts report.” The newspaper reported that a container fell
off one truck in Idaho. The driver of another truck had a seizure
and the truck ran across the highway into oncoming traffic. Fortunately
there were no collisions in the latter incident. 


In another instance a truck arrived at WIPP and it was discovered
that the radwaste had been loaded wrong, resulting in leakage en
route. In fact, all such “nuclear packages” emit radiation
because the hot cargo can’t be totally shielded, and if you
get stuck in traffic near one, you’ll likely get zapped. 


Mary Olson of NIRS has also reported on the transportation of nuclear
materials on our roads in support of Bush’s new nuclear weapons
programs. These included: 



  • truck shipments of plutonium from federal nuclear sites in western
    states to the Savannah River site in South Carolina to make plutonium
    nuclear fuel or triggers for nuclear weapons 




  • shipments of plutonium triggers to replace old ones or for new
    ones at Oak Ridge, Tennessee 

  • shipments of tritium rods to replace old ones in nuclear weapons,
    from commercial nuclear plants in Tennessee to the Savannah River
    site 

  • transportation of uranium hexafluoride to make nuclear fuel rods
    for Poseidon and Trident nuclear submarines 



The 800-pound nuclear gorilla on the nation’s roads is the
threat of the Yucca Mountain high level nuclear dump in Nevada coming
into being. This would entail transporting many millions of pounds
of highly lethal spent fuel rods from the 100-plus operating and
shut down commercial nuclear power plants to the sacred lands of
the Western Shoshone tribe. If Yucca Mountain comes to be a high
level radwaste dump, the chances of nuke truck and/or train accidents
will increase exponentially. 



Bush has given this project the green light and it’s currently
scheduled to open for its dirty business in 2017. But with Democrats
now in control of Congress, there is a chance of cutting the project’s
funding enough to choke the dump to death. Senator Harry Reid of
Nevada, a long-time opponent of the project, is now Majority Leader
of that chamber and has already pronounced it dead. 



That wouldn’t eliminate the dangers of all the other nuclear
traffic on our roads. But dumping the Yucca Mountain dump would
be a good start in turning the nuclear traffic back. 











Michael
Steinberg is a veteran activist and writer. He is the author of



Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies and Radiation in
Southeastern Connecticut

.