Nevada officials urge stricter tests on nuclear shipping casks

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Planned safety tests on nuclear waste shipping casks are inadequate, Nevada officials told federal regulators Wednesday.

One Nevada official raised the specter of a train wreck and fire like one that burned for days in a Baltimore rail tunnel in 2001. Others focused on the threat of terrorist sabotage or a missile attack on a canister of highly radioactive material being transported from sites in 39 states to a planned federal nuclear waste repository in the Nevada desert.

"We think cask testing is possibly the most important single nuclear waste transportation issue," Robert Halstead, a state consultant, said as he urged Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials to expand plans to test truck and train nuclear waste shipping containers.

NRC officials insisted that current standards for testing nuclear casks are adequate, but said the agency was planning tougher tests on casks that might be used to ship the nation's spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain.

Officials at Wednesday's daylong round-table hearing didn't say that beefed-up testing was related to the federal government's plan to bury 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

"NRC believes our existing criteria, regulations and standards are adequate," said E. William Brach, the NRC official chairing the meeting.

The hearing also involved more than 20 representatives from Utah, New Mexico, the Energy Department, Las Vegas, five Nevada counties, three Nevada Indian tribes and anti-Yucca Mountain organizations. Another hearing was scheduled Thursday in Pahrump, the Nye County city closest to the Yucca Mountain site.

Brach and NRC testing project chief Andrew Murphy outlined plans to spend $20 million or more to drop a 25-ton truck cask and a 125-ton rail cask from a height of 250 feet or more to simulate a 75-mph crash.

Each cask would then be engulfed in a jet fuel fire for more than 30 minutes and then examined to see if mock radioactivity packages inside were damaged.

The experiments would be done at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

"We're trying our best to ... enhance confidence in the NRC's ability to transport spent nuclear fuel," Murphy said.

But the NRC officials said there were no plans to test casks by immersing them in water, even though Energy Department planners have said some nuclear waste would be transported by barge from sites along the nation's coasts and the Great Lakes.

Michael Conroy, an Energy Department official, said casks were being built to meet "improbable extremes."

Nevada has been fighting the Yucca Mountain project for years. Halstead and Fred Dilger, a Clark County nuclear waste division planner, circulated a 14-page paper on Wednesday focusing on the July 18, 2001, rail mishap in Baltimore during which tanks containing toxic acids were among eight cars of a 60-car train that derailed and burned.

Halstead and Dilger said a similar fire could cause the nuclear fuel transport casks to fail and let radioactivity escape. They urged full-scale impact, puncture and thermal cask testing -- including tests involving a fire longer than one hour.

Judy Treichel, director of the Las Vegas-based Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, an anti-Yucca Mountain group, cited the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia.

She said the NRC should widen its scope of probable mishaps to consider the possibility of intentional or accidental mishaps on nuclear waste shipments across 43 states.

"You can control the tests, but you're going to have to make a deal with God to control the accident," she said.


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