Hot Load: Baltimore tunnel fire, Aberdeen missile test targets in national nuke-transport debate

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 20, 2002

Nevada’s Yucca Mountain may be nearly a continent away, but the Baltimore area has become ground zero in the debate over plans to store the nation’s 70,000 tons of nuclear waste there, under a decades-in-the-making plan formally approved by President Bush on Feb. 15.

In the days leading up to and following Bush’s OK, which sends the issue to Congress for final approval, two close-to-home events–a 1998 missile-strike test on a nuclear-waste container at Aberdeen Proving Ground and last summer’s chemical fire in the Howard Street tunnel–have been cited by Nevada officials and other opponents of the Yucca Mountain plan. Critics maintain that both events offer cautionary evidence about what might happen to the casks used to transport radioactive waste in the event of a terrorist attack or severe accident.

After the July 2001 tunnel fire, the state of Nevada hired the consulting firm Radioactive Waste Management Associates (RWMA) to study the potential impact had the Baltimore blaze involved nuclear-waste containers. Some Yucca Mountain blueprints include transporting such cargo through the Howard Street tunnel from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear-power plant in Southern Maryland or other Southeastern nuclear facilities (“Hot Line,” Sept. 12, 2001).

The nuclear-power industry and supporters of the Yucca plan have maintained that a fire of the heat and duration necessary to rupture one of the casts was virtually impossible. But RWMA concluded that the Baltimore fire would have caused a cask to break, exposing tens of thousands of people to acute radiation and necessitating billions of dollars in cleanup costs. (The full report can be read at the State of Nevada’s Web site.)

The test at Aberdeen, meanwhile, points up dangers associated with potential terrorist attacks, another risk downplayed by the nuclear industry, despite the events of recent months. While acknowledging that some weapon systems can puncture the waste containers, the industry argues that any radioactive release would be small and easily contained. Not so, contend Yucca critics, who claim a newly released videotape of the 1998 test proves otherwise.

The tape suddenly became a hot property in the Yucca debate when word circulated among plan opponents early this month that U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) had a copy and was considering releasing it to the media. That hasn’t yet happened, but a copy of the video was obtained by City Paper from Thomas Kirch, president of International Fuel Containers Inc. (IFC), the New York-based marketing arm for a German firm that makes nuclear-waste containers.

IFC used Aberdeen Proving Ground’s facilities and personnel to test the strength of the German Castor cask, a container used around the world to store and ship spent nuclear fuel. The tape shows a TOW anti-tank missile blowing a hole through the cast-iron wall of a Castor cask. When a second round is fired into the cask–this time protected by IFC’s patented “flak jacket” material–the video shows little damage to the cask wall, though the protective material is pulverized.

“The most staggering implication of the IFC test is that, if [the missile] drilled that softball-sized hole through 15 inches of cast iron, it certainly wouldn’t have any trouble penetrating a truck cask,” the smaller, steel kind used to ship waste on highways, says Robert Halstead, transportation adviser to Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects.

A self-proclaimed “green nuclear advocate” whose studies of nuclear-waste transportation issues have focused largely on the risks of terrorist attacks on casks, Halstead says he’s “dumbfounded” at the sudden emergence of the test video, which he contends is proof that widely available anti-tank weaponry can go through a cask wall and disperse its radioactive contents–a point that has been debated for years and has gained relevance since Sept. 11. The Castor has been considered “the premier storage and transport cask in the world since the 1980s,” Halstead says, meaning that other containers in use for nuclear transport could be even more vulnerable to missile attacks.

“The test proved exactly what the state of Nevada had feared,” he says, “that these casks are highly vulnerable to state-of-the-art weapons.”

Kirch contends that the missile piercing the cask does not prove that the container is insecure. “[I]t can be easily repaired, right on the spot, in a very short period of time, using a lead plug,” he says. “And the amount of leakage or contamination would be very, very controlled and very limited.”

(“I’d like to meet one of these people who is going to volunteer to walk up to the hole in the cask like the Dutch boy walking up to plug up the hole in the dam,” Halstead counters. “Remember, they are going to be entering a radiation zone.”)

Kirch, a self-described proponent of nuclear nonproliferation, has a long history as a player in the atomic-power arena. Since the mid-1990s, he has been a principal in a firm called U.S. Fuel & Security Inc., along with U.S. Navy Adm. Daniel Murphy (retired) and Alex Copson, a former member of the rock group Iron Butterfly.

Kirch says the company aims to end reprocessing of spent fuel from nuclear-power plants into weapons-grade plutonium by controlling the world’s supply of spent fuel and securing it at a centralized location, an idea with some support in the nation’s nuclear, defense, and intelligence communities. An initial proposal to store the fuel on an oceanic atoll was rejected; Kirch says U.S. Fuel & Security and allied groups–including the Nonproliferation Trust, a Washington based company whose leaders include Murphy and former FBI and CIA chief William Webster–have set their sights on a site in Russia.

As to IFC’s involvement in the Yucca Mountain controversy, Kirch asserts that his video is not relevant to the debate of nuclear transport and is being misrepresented for “political purposes” by Nevada officials seeking to derail the Yucca plan.

“The test was performed purely to demonstrate the safety of the metal cask and the increased security of using a ballistic protection system,” he says. The cask that was tested, he notes, is not licensed in the United States for transportation of nuclear waste, but only for storage. However, the 41/2-minute Aberdeen video, produced in infomercial style, proclaims that the test shows the Castor casks can safely “both store and transport spent nuclear fuel.”

Officials at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group that has downplayed the risks of nuclear transport in trucks and trains and criticized the RWMA report, did not return phone calls seeking comment on that study or the Aberdeen video.

Halstead contends the nuclear industry is hurting itself by questioning such indications of risk: “They should be saying, ‘Yep, once in a great while there is an accident that is really so bad that it might threaten these casks,’ and then setting to work managing those risks.” He suggests rerouting shipments to avoid places where accidents are more frequent; running track-inspection cars ahead of trains to make sure there’s nothing to cause a derailment; and requiring that nuclear waste be shipped only on “dedicated” trains carrying no other cargo.

(The fire under Howard Street was prolonged by the presence of wood products among the train’s cargo. The industry maintains that it voluntarily uses only dedicated trains for nuclear shipments.)

“There are very straightforward ways to manage risk once you acknowledge that the risk exists,” Halstead says. “But if you are determined, as the nuclear industry is, to defy reality and say that there are no risks, you are asking for Exxon Valdez–and it will happen to them.”


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