A Nuke Train Gets Ready To Roll

The "no nukes" buttons dated from the 1970s and the audience consisted of curious locals, including a 9-year-old boy and his puppy. But when Kevin Kamps brought the anti-nuke campaign to tiny Moberly, Mo., last week, he loudly sounded the alarm. Kamps, an organizer for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based anti-nuke group, is on the road to whip up opposition to a controversial federal plan to transport a trainload of spent nuclear fuel from New York state to Idaho. "We're here to warn people that a shipment of highly radioactive waste will be moving through Moberly by train," Kamps told his listeners. "This could be the first of tens of thousands of shipments." The rally was small, but effective. Two TV crews and some reporters showed up and concern was duly spread. "If this spills in town, will they come clean it up?" asked one worried mother.

With the Bush administration committed to reviving the nation's nuclear industry, people in Moberly and all across the country will be getting a crash course in nuclear safety--a hot-button issue from the '70s whose time is coming again. There's plenty to be said in favor of nuclear energy: it's often cheaper than oil, cleaner than coal and it's arguably safer than it used to be. "If you want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions," Vice President Dick Cheney said in March, "then you ought to build nuclear power plants." Linking nukes to global warming was a shrewd bit of spin calculated to split the opposition, and it may work. Most nationals polls show a slow rise in public support for nuclear power as concern for global warming has grown.

But if the Bush administration intends to push ahead with nukes it must solve an intractable problem--finding a safe way to store thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel from the nation's power reactors. There are 40,000 metric tons of depleted uranium fuel immersed in storage pools or encased in aboveground casks in 34 states, and the industry is adding substantially to that total every year. (There are 103 nuclear plants in operation, and they provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity.) Since the mid-'80s the Feds have been preparing to stash all that waste in a tunnel under Yucca Mountain, Nev. The Yucca Mountain plan has been tied up with lawsuits and environmental-impact studies for years, and critics say important environmental questions still haven't been answered. But the Energy Department, which is responsible for finding a solution to the nation's nuclear-waste problem, says Secretary Spencer Abraham will make a final decision on the facility by the end of this year. Abraham is expected to say yes.

If Congress approves, the moribund nuclear energy industry will be instantly revitalized. Because Yucca Mountain isn't scheduled to open until 2010, the industry is trying to set up an interim storage site on a Goshute Indian reservation 45 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah. That means the trains and trucks could start rolling as early as 2003. The antinuclear movement's strategy is obvious: stoke opposition by playing on the fear of radioactive contamination that could result from a truck or train accident. Activists say nuke shipments are "mobile Chernobyls"--hyperbole, but still a good slogan.

Ground zero for the looming confrontation is a dilapidated nuclear storage facility in West Valley, N.Y., 35 miles south of Buffalo. With mounting concern over safety issues and protests, the shipment is being planned like a military operation. The train will consist of seven cars, two of which will be flatcars laden with white, dumbbell-shaped containers that are fire-and crash-resistant. Known as casks, these containers will house the radioactive cargo--125 bundles of metal rods filled with uranium pellets. A DOE emergency team will ride in a passenger car at the rear, accompanied by an armed security guard. In Pennsylvania, state police will shadow the train. In New York, local police will check highway crossings and monitor the track ahead. DOE officials will follow the train's progress by satellite. John Chamberlain, a spokesman for the West Valley facility, said law-enforcement officials will be tracking the train with security and emergency personnel "at the ready." From New York, the train will run through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming en route to a vast DOE reservation in southeastern Idaho.

Hoping to keep protest groups at least somewhat off balance, DOE officials are keeping the train's departure date secret. They have been planning the shipment for more than a year and Chamberlain confirmed to NEWSWEEK that the FBI has been asked to "screen" for protests by antinuclear groups. If a protest does occur, Chamberlain said, "the main thing is to ensure the safety of the shipment. If you find out there will be a protest 500 miles ahead, you park the train. If something happens right in front of you, obviously you'd have to stop."

Activists all along the route are mobilizing to meet the train, and the potential for disruption is real. In July, Kamps and others ran a civil-disobedience seminar in Fort Wayne, Ind., that included training in how to form a human chain. Participants watched a slide show of an anti-nuke protest in Germany that led to successful attempts to block a train. Some German protesters carried off sections of rail and undermined the tracks by tunneling. Others chained themselves to the tracks, and some glued themselves to the tracks. "In Germany a group of six people held up a train for 18 hours," Kamps said.

The train's starting point, known as the Western New York Nuclear Service Center, is a dilapidated monument to the failure of U.S. nuclear policy and an environmental mess. Built to reprocess spent fuel from commercial power reactors, the plant shut down in 1972 and never reopened. Nowadays, hazardous waste is stored in a huge warehouse and under tarpaulins in the surrounding fields. Until May the 125 reactor fuel assemblies were stored in a slowly deteriorating indoor pool lined with brown scum and filled with lethally radioactive water. "West Valley is a testament to what happens when you don't plan from the outset," says Richard Lester, a nuclear engineer at MIT. "People really didn't think about nuclear waste." They are now--and when the train finally pulls out of West Valley, the future direction of America's energy policy will be onboard.

A Nuke Train Gets Ready To Roll | News