Fire Storm: The 2001 Baltimore tunnel fire still smolders

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 26, 2003

For three days in July 2001, chemical tankers and railroad cars filled with paper burned out of control in a downtown tunnel under Howard Street. As the inferno’s smoke cleared, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) started its work to determine the fire’s origin–an ongoing, secretive investigation whose long-awaited preliminary results, at last word, are expected to be released sometime this spring.

Unbeknownst to most, though, in September 2001 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) also began studying the Baltimore fire and obtained privileged information from the NTSB investigation. The NRC hoped to lay to rest a controversial question: Would a nuclear-waste rail cask, a heavy-duty container designed to move spent nuclear fuel around the country, have leaked any of its deadly contents had it been in the hottest part of the Baltimore tunnel fire? In February, the NRC’s results were released: The agency predicted that a cask would have survived intact. But not everyone is convinced by the study’s findings.

“The NRC’s report is an attempt to downplay the real-world conditions that might actually cause casks to fail and release radioactive materials, as we believe the Baltimore rail-tunnel fire would have done,” Robert Halstead told City Paper after the report was released. Halstead is a consultant for the state of Nevada’s Agency for Nuclear Projects, which has battled the NRC for years over nuclear-waste transportation issues.

Halstead was one of dozens of nuclear-waste safety experts, nuclear industry officials, engineers, and citizens gathered at a March 6 public meeting at the NRC headquarters in Rockville to debate the protocol the NRC will use to determine transportation-cask safety and durability. The Baltimore tunnel fire was very much on the agenda.

Views on the risks posed to nuclear-waste transportation casks by an event like the Baltimore fire have been divided since news of the fire spread across the country in the summer of 2001 (“Hot Line,” Sept. 12, 2001). At the time, President George W. Bush had yet to sign off on a plan–which he did approve last year–to ship the nation’s 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to a central repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. Opponents–primarily anti-nuclear activists and the state of Nevada–saw in the tunnel fire a real-life episode that could be used to fight the Yucca plan.

Critics pointed out that the Howard Street tunnel was initially on the NRC’s proposed waste route from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland–where a growing inventory of more than 930 metric tons of spent fuel is stored– to Yucca Mountain. They said that if the tunnel fire had burned hot enough and long enough to damage a cask carrying spent fuel, there would be reasonable grounds for concern that potentially deadly radioactive material might be released. Though scale-model tests and computers have been used to gauge the casks’ strength, critics argued, the casks have never been tested on a full-scale basis. So who can say for sure that a real cask could have survived this very real fire?

Yucca proponents, primarily the nuclear industry and its regulators, dismissed such notions as fear-mongering. They stressed the strength of the casks, asserting that the computer models and scale testing provide enough assurance that a 130-ton rail cask will meet the regulatory standards. They also touted the industry’s long record of safety in nuclear-waste transportation: about 3,000 spent-fuel shipments over nearly 40 years, and only eight accidents, none involving a release of radioactivity.

Right around the time the NRC started to gather data about the Baltimore fire, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, ushering in a new era of heightened security around the nation’s nuclear-power complex. A video of a 1998 Aberdeen Proving Ground test was obtained by City Paper in February 2002, showing the impact a portable missile warhead would have on a rail cask–it would blow a hole right through the cask wall to possibly catastrophic effect (“Hot Load,” Feb. 20, 2002).

Subsequent concern over the safety of nuclear waste shipments have led to some changes. The Howard Street tunnel has been removed from NRC’s maps of proposed routes for nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain; new maps show that Calvert Cliffs’ shipments may instead move by barge up the Chesapeake Bay to the Port of Baltimore. And more significantly for nuclear-waste safety advocates nationwide, the NRC now plans to conduct full-scale transportation-cask testing. As a result, the March 6 NRC hearing was devoted to debate over how to conduct testing, including much heated discussion of the Baltimore tunnel fire.

“St. Patrick’s Day will mark 25 years since the first time that I got involved with the full-scale cask testing issue,” Halstead said by way of introducing himself to attendees. “And in all that time I can’t ever remember the NRC holding a meeting solely for the purpose of discussing full-scale testing. So this is a special occasion.”

Halstead handed out a paper he’d presented a week earlier at a conference in Tucson, Ariz., that recommended comprehensive full-scale cask tests in light of the Baltimore fire’s intensity. “Analyses of that accident by Nevada consultants and by the NRC both conclude that fire temperatures in the Baltimore rail tunnel reached or exceeded 1,500 degrees F,” the paper points out, “although estimates of the fire duration at this temperature vary from seven hours to more than 24 hours.” The regulatory test a cask must pass for certification, meanwhile, is 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit for a half an hour. The difference between the estimated conditions in the Baltimore fire and those in the regulatory standard is so great that Halstead proposes a cask simply be destroyed by fire to see how much heat one can take for how long before it breaks.

Halstead cited a study released in September 2001, conducted for the state of Nevada by Radioactive Waste Management Associates of New York, that predicted that a cask would have failed in the Baltimore fire, causing a release of radioactive cesium gas and the contamination of downtown Baltimore.

As for the NRC’s study, which was a computer simulation conducted by the federal National Institutes of Standards Technology (NIST) based on privileged NTSB information about the fire and data from a staged tunnel fire in West Virginia a few years ago, Halstead said, “We dispute the assumptions and the findings.

“Nevada consultants were barred from attending NRC meetings regarding that report, which sure as hell undermined our confidence in the proceeding,” he said of the February report (which was actually completed last August). He went on to say that the only way to gain “confidence in this report is for the NRC to bring the authors” from NIST in for “a very detailed technical review.” A few heads nodded at Halstead’s suggestion, but otherwise his call to haul in the NIST team for questioning went unheeded.

“The Baltimore fire ought to be the standard that we look at to see if the thermal test reflects what can happen in the real world,” Halstead said. “Unfortunately, instead of having a technically objective and unbiased [NRC] report that captures to the best of our ability what happened in that tunnel, we now have a report that we believe is seriously deficient both technically and in terms of public confidence.”

Kevin Kamps, head of the Nuclear Information Research Service, a non-profit organization that also opposes the Yucca project, picked up on Halstead’s criticism when his turn at the microphone arrived. “I was amazed,” he said of the NRC report, “that the impact of the fire on the radiation shield in the container was beyond the scope of the analysis.” The radiation shield is an inner layer of material, which usually includes lead, that surrounds the packages of spent fuel cells and is a key protective element in a cask.

But Chris Bajwa, the author of the NRC report on the Baltimore fire and an engineer with the NRC’s Spent Fuel Project Office, explained that his study “assumed that after the fire the [radiation] shield was gone, and the dose rates they calculated [from the resulting release] were within the regulatory limits.” Thus, he said, the study shows that “the consequences of a spent-fuel cask being involved in a fire such as the one that occurred in the Howard Street tunnel are minimal. Our conclusion is that there would be no radioactive release.”

At this, Halstead dug in his heels. “It’s clear we’ve got a situation here where two different parties evaluated this fire using different sets of assumptions, and both stand by their findings,” Halstead said in his closing remarks. “As is so often the case in these kinds of disputes, the question is in the assumptions.”

One reasonable assumption, Halstead joked to a reporter as he gathered his papers and prepared to leave, is that the dispute over the Baltimore tunnel fire isn’t likely to let up soon.

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.”


Hot Line: The Feds are considering shipping spent nuclear fuel through the Howard Street Tunnel. Are they playing with fire?

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 12, 2001

For a few days in mid-July, a few dozen train cars carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials burned out of control beneath the city. After a century of barely being known even to Baltimoreans, the Howard Street tunnel was suddenly in the national spotlight.

As an event, the tunnel fire was both scary and enthralling. Local residents and commuters were inundated with news of gridlock, a water-main break, and possibly toxic smoke. TV sets all over the country glimmered with images of menacing plumes and flooded streets, coupled with reports that the too-hot-to-fight inferno was disrupting not only rail traffic, but Internet services via cables that also run through the tunnel. But as normalcy was restored in the ensuing days and weeks, coverage tailed off. Today, for most folks, the fire is just a memory.

Lost in the immediacy of the moment and the disinterest of its aftermath are two questions that may ensure the Howard Street tunnel fire’s lasting legacy: What if nuclear waste had been among the freight in the hottest part of the fire? Could radioactivity have been released, contaminating people and property in the heart of a major East Coast city?

The question isn’t merely theoretical. A long-studied proposal for handling the nation’s growing inventory of nuclear waste by carting it from points around the country to a permanent repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is expected to reach President Bush’s desk later this year. If the project gets a presidential thumbs-up and survives the resulting legal challenges, spent nuclear fuel will be a frequent passenger on the nation’s highways and railroads for the next three or four decades, en route to the Nevada desert. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) call for carrying used-up fuel assemblies from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland by train through the Howard Street tunnel.

When it comes to managing the potential of large-scale risks such as nuclear accidents, examining extreme hypothetical situations–the possibility, for instance, of nuclear waste in the Howard Street tunnel fire–is crucial to finding ways to avoid disasters. Thus, nuclear-transportation experts have started to examine and debate what they have dubbed “the Baltimore fire.” Until the actual conditions of the fire–the top temperature reached, how long it stayed that hot–are established, much of the talk is necessarily speculative. But the central questions posed by the fire are already known: How sturdy are the containers used to transport nuclear waste? How foolproof are the methods of moving them safely by train?

Critics contend that the containers, called “transportation casks,” haven’t been tested enough to know their true strength; cost, rather than safety, is the chief priority in designing nuclear-transportation plans, they say. The nuclear-energy industry points out the exemplary safety record of waste shipments and outlines the stringent measures taken to guard against reasonably foreseeable dangers. However the argument turns out, it’s a good bet that as the Yucca Mountain Project heats up, the Howard Street tunnel fire will be national news once again.

Sitting in her Mount Washington home July 18, Gwen Dubois listened anxiously to reports of a tunnel fire downtown. Her teenage son had already left on the light rail for a double-header at Oriole Park. “On any given day, he’s as likely to be at Camden Yards as he is to be home, despite what’s happened to the Orioles this season,” she says, recalling her worries in an interview later that month. Knowing that freight trains often carry chemicals that can produce toxic smoke when burned, Dubois was “concerned about whether his health was at risk.” When “later on I found out that he was stopped on North Avenue and came home, I was greatly relieved,” she says.

Dubois’ relief about the fire was short-lived. An internist, she sits on the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group based in Washington that works to raise public awareness of nuclear issues. On her house hangs a large banner reading nuclear-free zone. Attuned as she is to nuclear risks, her thoughts quickly broadened from the chemical fire to larger issues.

“Within hours,” she says, “I was thinking, If this were a train carrying radioactive waste, what kind of exposures would there be? Who would be monitoring? Would we even know? What about the psychological impact on people who are afraid that they’ve been exposed? So, as bad as this fire was, I thought it would have been just truly a catastrophe if the train had carried nuclear waste. . . .

“As time goes by, the other issue is, it’s going to become more and more likely that trains will contain nuclear waste, and nuclear waste carried in containers that haven’t been adequately tested. And also, this train wreck–the temperatures were extremely high, high enough to cause burning of nuclear waste and make some of the radioactivity airborne and carried over a wider area,” she continues. “So all of the specifics about this train fire–the temperature, the difficulty getting to it, the fact that it was in an urban area where a lot of people were potentially exposed–all of these factors are so relevant. If the cargo was radioactive, the implications would have really been just mammoth.”

Dubois’ mind was not the only one turning to the potential nuclear risks posed by the Howard Street tunnel fire. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)–the Senate majority whip and, like every other elected official in Nevada, a strident opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan–took to the Senate floor the day after the fire began to offer his take on the dangers.

“People think hydrochloric acid is bad, which it is,” Reid said, referring to one of the hazardous materials carried by the burning train in Baltimore, “but not as bad as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we’re talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it all across America.”

Reid enlisted the aid of Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in promptly convincing his colleagues to do what politicians often do when drastic accidents occur: order a study. On July 23, as charred rail cars were being removed from the Howard Street tunnel, the Senate voted 96-0 to attach an amendment to the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations bill requiring DOT to conduct a top-down assessment of the nation’s system for transporting hazardous and radioactive waste.

Reid’s actions in the wake of the Baltimore fire caused a flurry of interest–back in Nevada. “Baltimore’s experience should be reason enough to comprehend that Yucca Mountain isn’t just Nevada’s problem, it would be a land mine for any city or town that had the misfortune of being located near the path that would take nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain,” the daily Las Vegas Suneditorialized on July 25 under the headline “Baltimore derailment a bad omen.”

Also quick to pick up on the nuke-train angle was the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based activist group. The organization’s nuclear-waste specialist, Kevin Kamps, shot off a press release on July 21, revealing that a U.S. Department of Energy assessment of the Yucca Mountain Project included route maps that showed nuclear-waste shipments going by rail from Calvert Cliffs through the Howard Street tunnel. Kamps spent the next two weeks touring the country, garnering news coverage of this new twist to the Yucca Mountain debate.

Pro-Yucca forces dismiss attempts to play up the Baltimore fire as a nuclear-waste-transportation issue. The day after Reid made his speech on the Senate floor, the industry issued its response. “It is really unfair for Sen. Reid to use this as an opportunity to make a case against Yucca Mountain by scaring the public,” said Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the D.C.-based Nuclear Industry Institute (NEI). Sarah Berk, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), told reporters that Reid’s response to the tunnel fire is “a misguided and misinformed effort to connect something that should not be connected. The fact of the matter is, if that train had been carrying nuclear components, it would have been protected in containers that would have prevented this sort of a spill.” Berk stressed the nuclear-power industry’s “phenomenal safety record” and its ongoing efforts “to develop safe and responsible methods to handle nuclear waste.”

The NEI’s Web site ( points out that nuclear-waste shipments are small, carefully managed, and do have a remarkable safety record: In nearly 40 years of transporting spent nuclear fuel, there have been 2,900 shipments and only eight accidents. Only one was serious, and none resulted in a radioactive release.

In Maryland, shipments of high-level radioactive materials have occurred without incident. Twenty-eight thousand pounds of radioactive material passed through Maryland in four shipments during July and August 2000, according to the Maryland State Police, which is notified of such hauls, and since 1996 approximately 15 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were trucked through the state in five separate shipments.

In addition, an NRC report shows that between 1993 and 1997 154.8 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were shipped out of state from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, Calvert Cliffs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Another 17.1 kilograms were sent to Dundalk for export.

The key to safely transporting spent nuclear rods is the survivability of the casks. The NRC, according to NEI’s Web site, requires that transportation casks “pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions that create forces greater than the containers would experience in actual accidents. The same container must, in sequence, undergo 1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, 2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, 3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container, and 4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours.”

What the NEI site doesn’t point out is that never has an actual, full-size cask been subjected to this battery of assaults. Quarter-scale models have been used as the basis for computer models that predict how an actual cask would perform in extreme circumstances. But no actual full-scale testing has been conducted, because subjecting a 130-ton cask to those conditions is logistically challenging and very expensive–probably near $20 million per test. Thus–as Yucca Mountain Project critics like to point out–there is no real-life basis for concluding the casks can survive such extreme circumstances.

The third element in the NRC’s list of standards–the 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit–is the one that turned attention to the Baltimore blaze. Firefighters here reported whole train cars aglow from the heat of the tunnel fire. On the second day of the fire, Baltimore City Fire Department officials told the press that the temperature in the tunnel was as high as 1,500 degrees. If the hottest part of the fire rose above 1,475 degrees for more than 30 minutes–as appears likely, though technical analysis has yet to prove it–then the Howard Street tunnel fire achieved a rare intensity that gives pause to nuclear-waste- transportation experts.

Questions to NEI’s press office about whether casks are designed to survive a fire as intense as Baltimore’s was reported to be were referred to Robert Jones, a Los Gatos, Calif., nuclear engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and now works as a nuclear-industry consultant. Jones was skeptical about whether the Baltimore fire actually exceeded the design standard for casks. If it did, he says, it would be a singular event. Jones cites a government study showing that the probability of an actual railroad fire exceeding the regulatory conditions is less than 1/10 of 1 percent.

“I’ll wager that 1,500 degrees did not exist totally for a day and a half” in the Howard Street tunnel, Jones says. He acknowledges, though, that if it did, “there’s a potential for some release. But we’re not talking about this thing blowing up.” Rather, he explains, “the leakage, if it was to occur, is likely to be a radioactive gas that would be dispersed.”

Daniel Bullen, who sits on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board , concurs with Jones. “Would there potentially be a release? Yes,” says Bullen, an Iowa State University engineering professor who used to run that school’s now-closed nuclear-reactor laboratory. Foreseeing the questions his answer raises, he fires off a quick interview with himself: “Would it be a significant release? Probably not. Would it be hard to find? No, because radiation is pretty easy to find. Would it be difficult to remediate? Maybe. You might have to move a lot of dirt and clean up a lot of surface and stuff. But would it be significantly life-threatening? Probably not.”

“Oh, this guy’s just shooting from the hip,” Marvin Resnikoff says upon hearing Bullen’s characterization of the effects of a long-burning 1,500-degree fire. Resnikoff, a physicist, heads Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in analyzing nuclear-waste safety. The state of Nevada recently hired him to look at the Howard Street tunnel fire and report on its implications for safe transport of spent nuclear fuel. The report is due to be completed this month; when it’s released, Resnikoff asserts, “we’ll have much more definitive answers.”

In the meantime, Resnikoff offers a glimpse of what he’s learning. If the fire turns out to be as hot as reported–and his analysis will establish whether or not it was–then a potential release would include other materials besides radioactive gas.

“There are particulates,” he says. “We are concerned about cesium 137 because it is semivolatile. And we are concerned about cobalt 60, to a lesser extent, because that material is on the outside” of spent-fuel assemblies and could be released more quickly in the event of a leak. Cesium 137 and cobalt 60 are radioactive carcinogens that have half-lives of 30 and five years, respectively, so they represent a long-term cancer risk. They emit gamma rays, which, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, “can easily pass completely through the human body or be absorbed by tissue, thus constituting a radiation hazard for the entire body.” Based on the weather conditions that existed during the Baltimore fire, Resnikoff estimates that a radioactive smoke plume exiting the southern terminus of the tunnel would have spread perilously close to Camden Yards.

Until the report is concluded and released, Resnikoff declines to give any more details of his concerns about what could have happened if nuclear waste had been in the Howard Street tunnel fire. Robert Halstead, transportation adviser for the Nevada Office of Nuclear Projects, which hired Resnikoff to study the Baltimore fire, is much more candid.

If the fire was hot enough for a long enough time to compromise the casks and cause a leak, Halstead says, “you are going to be concerned with this plume of smoke carrying cesium and some other fission products. Obviously it’s bad if you breathe it, but also, because it is a big-time emitter of gamma radiation, there is direct radiation from the plume. If anything’s been deposited on the ground, it’s irradiating the area also. It would cause a very big cleanup problem.

“So you basically would face this terrible choice,” Halstead says. “You could easily spend in excess of $5 [billion] to $10 billion to clean the area. Or you could simply quarantine the area. The real answer on this is that you are probably going to have a situation where you’ve spent money rather than lives. There probably aren’t going to be thousands of latent cancer fatalities, but you are going to have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to prevent that. That’s a pretty fair ballpark [figure].”

If Resnikoff concludes that the Baltimore fire actually could damage a nuclear-waste-transportation cask enough to cause a radiation leak, the question becomes how to ensure that nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else, for that matter) is never subjected to such an accident. This opens up a whole other area of debate–some experts contend the shipping risks are minimal, while others assert transportation is the weakest link in the nuclear-waste-management chain.

Jones, the cask designer, points out that rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel are made on dedicated trains, hauling only nuclear-waste casks. That reduces the probability of waste being in a contained, inaccessible environment, such as a train tunnel, along with volatile chemicals and other materials that, when burning, can create extremely high temperatures for a long period of time. (The train that caught fire under Howard Street, for example, was loaded with wood and paper products.) Furthermore, shipping schedules can be coordinated to eliminate the possibility that a dedicated nuclear-waste train and a mixed-freight train with hazardous materials are in the same tunnel at the same time.

“You know, railroads don’t just cut things loose and say we’ll see you at the other end,” Jones says. “They’re very good at tracking these things. So the circumstances that would have to exist in order to have an environment where a spent-fuel train would be in that Baltimore tunnel fire or its equivalent is just extraordinary. A billion to one. It virtually isn’t going to happen, just because that’s the way the business is structured.”

Resnikoff counters that “there is no regulation that says that nuclear-waste shipments will be by dedicated train. It would all be voluntary on the industry’s part. If they’d like to sign a requirement that it will be by dedicated train, that would make a big difference. It costs more money to have a dedicated train. Do they want to put up the money? [That] is the question.”

“It’s perfectly credible that you could have one or two casks of spent fuel in a mixed-freight train going through that Baltimore tunnel,” Halstead maintains. His reasoning is based on cost. In all likelihood, dedicated trains will be used to make large hauls of nuclear waste. But the small amount of waste at Calvert Cliffs–930 metric tons, about 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel–may well end up on trains carrying a variety of other materials.

“A contractor working for the Department of Energy who got [its] contract on a low-bid basis would be tempted to shave nickels and dimes by transporting a small number of casks a short distance on a mixed-freight train–say, from Calvert Cliffs maybe up to Harrisburg [Pa.],” Halstead says. There, he speculates, the Calvert Cliffs casks would be transferred to a dedicated train carrying other waste from other reactors in the region.

Calvert Cliffs spokesperson Karl Neddenien cautions that “at this point there is no plan whatsoever as to where and how the shipments will go. It’s wide open.” He notes that Calvert Cliffs is right next to the Chesapeake Bay, so “it may turn out to be safer to put it on a barge to go down to Norfolk, Va., to a railhead. We don’t know.” He acknowledges that Yucca Mountain planning documents do show a proposed route through the Howard Street tunnel but says nothing is set in stone.

And Bullen, of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, suggests the proposed route may be changed in light of this summer’s events. “I’d be surprised if they let them use that tunnel after the fire,” he says.

Another problem with shipping waste by train is that “there are no federal regulations that govern the selection of shipping routes for rail,” Halstead says. “There are for trucks, and the highway routes are generally selected to minimize shipments through highly populated areas, but there aren’t any equivalent regulations for rail.” He suggests laws that prevent the use of two-way tunnels and require circuitous routing and dedicated trains.

“Why in the world would we allow spent fuel to be shipped in mixed-freight trains in the first place?” Halstead says. “And, secondly, if they were in mixed-freight trains, who would be stupid enough to run them through dangerous areas? Congress should just say, ‘Bang, you will not ship any spent fuel in mixed-freight trains.’ My god, what could be more common sense than that?”

His harsh critique of the existing waste-transport system notwithstanding, Halstead says he is not against nuclear power. “I personally think that there is a very good green case to be made for nuclear power,” he says. But after years of studying the industry and how it’s regulated, he says, he finds it “just pathetic that the people running this business are incapable of doing it technically and in a way that would have public confidence.”

The public is going to have plenty of opportunity to express its confidence, or lack thereof, in the Yucca Mountain Project as it winds through the approval process. Based on NRC’s assessment of the site’s scientific and technical feasibility, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and President Bush are expected to give the plan the green light later this year. Then Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and that state’s legislature will have an opportunity to veto that decision–something they’re assured to do. Once Nevada rejects it, Congress gets the final say by a simple majority vote of both houses. Along the way, lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and coalitions of environmental groups will throw up roadblocks. All together, this level of contention is bound to attract big media attention and raise Yucca Mountain’s profile as a national issue.

In the meantime, a major snafu has cast a shadow over Yucca. In late July, the Las Vegas Sun reported that for the last six years, the same Chicago law firm that the Department of Energy has been paying to provide legal services in support of Yucca Mountain has been lobbying on behalf of the NEI to get the project built. The firm, Winston & Strawn, and the NEI severed their relationship shortly after reporters called for comment on the apparent conflict of interest. “This situation,” Guinn wrote to Abraham in an Aug. 1 letter, “presents serious issues concerning conflict of interest and possible bias in the site evaluation process” for Yucca Mountain.

Around the same time, in an incident seized upon by anti-Yucca forces to bolster their case, a leaking cask was discovered on a truck carrying low-level nuclear waste through Nevada. No radioactive material escaped, but the July 30 incident served as a reminder of a leaky container found on a truck in Arizona in 1997–and that one did release radioactivity, leading to a suspension of additional shipments until corrective measures were put in place. Guinn promptly fired off another letter to Abraham: “It appears DOE’s protocol for the transportation of nuclear waste is seriously ineffective in protecting public health and the environment.”

Critics’ concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project aside, most everyone agrees that the technology doesn’t exist today to allow the waste to be stored on-site at the nation’s 72 nuclear-reactor sites for 10,000 years, until it has cooled off enough to be relatively safe. “It’s gotta go someplace, it can’t just stay around forever where it is,” says Robert Jones, the former GE nuclear engineer. As the nation has already invested $6 billion to $8 billion in the Yucca site, Jones contends, we should move forward with it. But it will cost another $50 billion to bring the Yucca site online; rather than continue throwing good money after bad, Nevada’s Sen. Reid contends, the Bush administration should scrap Yucca and start anew, finding another site or developing strategies to safely keep the waste where it is.

It remains to be seen how exercised the public will get over the potential hazards of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But as bad press, including the doubts about safety posed by the Baltimore fire, feeds into the collective realization that shipments are going to pass within a mile of an estimated 60 million U.S. residents over the course of 30 or 40 years, grass-roots opposition is bound to coalesce. If Resnikoff demonstrates that the Howard Street tunnel fire actually did burn at or about 1,500 degrees for more than a few hours–potentially enough to break a cask and cause a radioactive release–Yucca’s opponents’ arsenal will be stocked with a credible, real-life incident that raises serious doubts about the current framework for shipping the waste.

“The issue of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain is lurking on the national horizon,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects executive director Robert Loux wrote in an Aug. 16 guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, “like a thousand-pound gorilla waiting to pounce.”