A series of recent high-profile accidents involving trains and
trucks carrying hazardous cargo has given new ammunition to opponents
of the federal government's plan to build a national high-level
nuclear waste dump in the Nevada
The accident that received the most attention from anti-nuclear
forces was the July 18 derailment of a freight train in a tunnel
beneath Baltimore. The train carrying hazardous chemicals burned
for several days at temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees. If the
train had been carrying nuclear waste, opponents suggest, the steel
casks designed to protect radioactive waste could have been breached.
"I hope everyone recognizes the tremendous tragedy that was just
barely averted in Baltimore," Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) told reporters
after the derailment. "Hydrochloric acid is bad, but not as bad
as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person."
Then, on August 5, a train derailed outside Houston, spilling thousands
of gallons of
toxic chemicals and forcing the evacuation of 100 homes. Three days
later, a tanker truck carrying hazardous chemicals overturned on a
busy freeway in Chicago, shutting down area roads and forcing the
evacuation of nearby housing complexes. "While these incidents were
extremely serious and dangerous," said Rep.
Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada), "one could only imagine the ramifications
if any one of these trains contained nuclear waste."
Smoke billows from a train
tunnel near I-395 in Baltimore.
After Berkley made that statement, a truck transporting low-level
nuclear waste from New York to Nevada was discovered to be carrying
a cracked container. The driver noticed white foam on the truck
bed and called authorities, who found an inch-long crack in one
of the containers. DOE inspectors
said they did not detect radiation around the truck, but the incident
nevertheless fueled renewed concerns.
Reid, who recently ascended to the post of majority whip, has cited
the Baltimore train accident and the cracked nuclear-waste container
as "a wake-up call" about the dangers of transporting high-level
nuclear wastes from reactors across 43 states to Yucca Mountain,
90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Reid's newfound clout--he's now
the No. 2 person in the Senate behind Tom Daschle--has put any legislative
movement regarding the nuclear waste dump on hold. But studies of
Yucca Mountain continue, and nuclear regulators are pushing forward
with the licensing process. As a result, Reid and other dump opponents
are always looking for new ways to attack the plan. Yucca Mountain's
opponents maintain that it would be safer to simply keep the waste
at the reactor sites than to transport it to Nevada.
Following the Baltimore accident, Reid introduced an amendment
to a transportation appropriations bill to study the risks of transporting
hazardous materials and to determine whether the nation's emergency
response systems are sufficient. The amendment passed 96 to 0.
Meanwhile, the government of Clark County, where Las Vegas is located,
recently released a study outlining the human and financial toll
of a worst-case accident in Las Vegas involving high-level nuclear
waste. The U.S. Department of Energy's planned routes to bring the
waste to Yucca Mountain run through the middle of the gambling mecca.
The study looked at the effects of a collision involving a truck
carrying nuclear waste and a gasoline tanker on Interstate 15, which
runs parallel with the neon-drenched Strip. The accident would expose
more than 1,000 people to radiation and result in more than $1 billion
in cleanup costs and economic losses.