WASHINGTON—With shipments of used nuclear fuel numbering less than one-thousandth of 1 percent of all hazardous materials transported daily in the United States, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said today that opponents of the proposed Yucca Mountain project are "fear-mongering for political effect" with claims that used nuclear fuel transportation adds a potential new target for terrorists.
"If the proposed Yucca Mountain repository program moves forward, shipments of solid used nuclear fuel will number only one or two a day, even at the height of the government’s nuclear waste management program. That is in comparison to 1.2 million shipments of hazardous materials that already occur daily in the United States," NEI Executive Vice President Angie Howard said.
"Shipments of used nuclear fuel have been completed safely since the mid-1960s and will continue to be conducted safely in the future. The federal government has modified transportation standards in the past to assure safety, and the industry is confident that, if additional changes are needed in the future, they will be made. Any suggestion that the Yucca Mountain program should be stopped due to concerns about transportation safety is nothing more than fear-mongering for political effect. The proposed Yucca Mountain project should be judged on its scientific merits."
According to Las Vegas news reports, Nevada lawmakers, who oppose the construction of a geologic repository in the desert 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, are analyzing a marketing videotape for a German company in which a missile is fired at a container. "The tape would be useful to Nevadans if the cask really is a recent, top-shelf model and the missile is one that any well-connected terrorist could get his hands on," the Las Vegas Sun reported.
Howard said the videotaped missile test conducted in 1998 involved a container that is not licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for transport in the United States. Contrary to news reports, a missile was not fired at the container; rather, an explosive charge was attached directly to the container, Howard said.
"The laboratory-like test was structured to ensure the full explosive impact of a direct hit on the container. The results of the test are irrelevant to Yucca Mountain’s suitability as a potential site for a nuclear waste disposal facility. With safety the foremost concern, used nuclear fuel is transported in containers designed to protect their contents in extremely severe accident scenarios. A proven record of 3,000 shipments covering 1.7 million miles with no impact on public safety or the environment demonstrates we can transfer this material safely."
Used-fuel containers certified by the NRC provides several layers of protection, with steel providing the strength and lead functioning as a radiation shield. Typically, for every ton of used fuel, there are four tons of protective shielding.
Before the NRC certifies container designs, they must meet rigorous engineering and safety criteria. In addition, the container designs must be able to pass a sequence of hypothetical accident tests, including:
A 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, which would be equivalent to a head-on crash at 120 miles per hour into a concrete bridge abutment;
A puncture test allowing the container to fall 40 inches onto a steel rod six inches in diameter;
A 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container; and
Submergence of the same container under three feet of water for eight hours.
Containers are also subject to separate testing under 50 feet of water for eight hours.
In addition to the test required for NRC certification, engineers and scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico conducted a wide range of tests on used nuclear fuel containers in the 1970s and 1980s. These tests, which verified computer models, included:
Running a flatbed tractor-trailer carrying a container into a concrete wall at 84 miles per hour;
Placing a container on a rail car that was driven into a concrete wall at 81 miles per hour;
Placing a container on a tractor-trailer that was broadsided by a train locomotive traveling at 80 miles per hour.
In all cases, post-crash assessments showed that the containers—although slightly dented and charred—would not have released their contents.
Other Sandia tests evaluated a terrorist attack, and showed that the impact of missiles on containers would be minimal, particularly compared to the impact on a host of other hazardous materials.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.