October 20, 2004

Marks the Spot: Nuclear Waste Transport Risks Increased

Prior to recent license extensions, the Department of Energy estimated that it would take between 10,000 rail shipments and 50,000 truck shipments of nuclear waste to fill the nuclear power industry's share of Yucca Mountain, or about 90 percent of its capacity. Relicensing to date has added about 5,700 more truck shipments, or 1,050 rail shipments to that total. It will require a formal expansion of the Yucca repository to dump this nuclear waste in Nevada.

The Department of Energy declared in April 2004 that rail shipment to Nevada is the preferred mode of transportation for high level nuclear waste, even though 37 reactors at 24 plants lack rail access (DOE Rail Decision 2004, DOE Yucca EIS, J-29). Of the reactors that have been relicensed or have license extensions pending, 20 of 44 reactors at 10 plants lack rail access. For these reactors, first, waste would need to cool on site for 10 years. Then it would have to be loaded onto trucks and transported to railyards, where it would be loaded onto railcars for shipment to Nevada. Each step in this process is essentially untested, and presents significant security and safety concerns. The American Association of Railroads opposes this plan on safety and security grounds and is calling for dedicated nuclear waste transport trains if nuclear waste is to be shipped by rail.

Many Relicensed Reactors Have No Rail Access, Yet DOE Chose Rail as The Preferred Shipment Mode

Reactor Without Rail Access Metric Tons of Additional Waste
Resulting from Relicensing
Oconee, SC 958.8
Peach Bottom, PA 806.3
Catawba, SC 789.7
Surry, VA 667.5
Calvert Cliffs, MD 626.3
Turkey Point, FL 572.5
St. Lucie, FL 523.8
Ginna, NY 225.0

But the most basic problem with the rail shipment theory is that there is no rail line to the Yucca Mountain waste dump in Nevada. To address this issue, the DOE has proposed the construction of a 318-to-344-mile-long rail line from Caliente, Nevada, in the southeastern portion of the state, around an old nuclear test site to Yucca Mountain (DOE Rail Decision 2004). If built, this would be the largest rail construction project in the past 80 years.

It is not clear, however, that this rail line will be built on-time, or at all. The state of Nevada has filed suit in federal court challenging the entire project. For the past 20 years, the DOE has a long record of cost overruns and delays relating to the Yucca repository, and it is not apparent why construction of this rail line will be any different.

If a proposed rail line to Yucca Mountain is not built by 2010, when the first shipments of waste are due to arrive (based on DOE contracts with utilities), then waste will either begin to pile up above ground in the tiny eastern Nevada town of Caliente, or be shipped through Las Vegas on the back of semi trailers at a rate of about 2,200 shipments per year for at least 24 years.

The 26 reactors relicensed to date add 5,700 shipments of high-level nuclear waste to the current total, and extend the length of time when nuclear waste is on Las Vegas highways for another 8 to 10 years.