Tunnel Fire Exposes Dangers Of Transporting Nuclear Waste

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Here’s a scary thought: What if the train that burned up in a recent Baltimore rail tunnel fire had been carrying nuclear waste?

It’s not that far-fetched. According to Energy Department maps that trace national railroad routes for the transport of nuclear waste to a proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a train carrying spent fuel rods from a nuclear power plant near Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay could pass right through the same tunnel.

If a train carrying atomic waste were to catch fire, the only thing standing between people and deadly radiation would be the nuclear waste transport casks, which could leak in a severe accident, releasing radiation. Spent nuclear fuel,even decades after removal from the reactor, could deliver a lethal dose of radiation in just a few minutes time.

The July 18 inferno in Baltimore’s Howard Street train tunnel reportedly reached temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The blaze, apparently fed by flammable chemicals in the train cargo, burned out of control all day long, overnight, and well into the next day.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls for high-level nuclear waste containers to be able to withstand a 1,475 degree fire for 30 minutes. Clearly, this real life accident in Baltimore burned longer and hotter than anything envisioned by the NRC.

These outdated criteria date back to 1947 and haven’t been updated since, despite combustibles on the roads and rails today that burn at much higher temperatures. That needs to change.

By any reckoning, the damage from a tunnel fire involving nuclear waste could be enormous. According to experts like Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist with Radioactive Waste Management Associates in New York City, a severe high-level radioactive waste transport accident releasing radiation in an urban area could cause scores of latent cancer fatalities and cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up.

Resnikoff used the DOE’s own computer models to arrive at these figures. The Baltimore Sun quoted a firefighter as saying all he could see inside the tunnel was the glowing metal of train tanker cars. He described it as “a deep orange, like a horseshoe just pulled out of
the oven.”

The big question is, could high-level atomic waste containers survive such severe accident conditions? If not, we could be looking at our own Chernobyl catastrophe – on wheels.

Kevin Kamps is nuclear waste specialist with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, DC. (Copyright 2001, Global Beat Syndicate, 418 Lafayette Street, Suite 554, New York, NY 10003; http://www.nyu.edu/globalbeat/syndicate). For this article, see http://www.nyu.edu/globalbeat/syndicate/kamps072601.html .

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