Reid, Ensign say Nuclear Waste Rail Plan Unsafe

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal officials insisted Wednesday that transporting thousands of tons of radioactive waste by rail to Nevada can be done safely. Nevada Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign strongly disagreed.

Testifying at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, Reid, D-Nev., called the Energy Department's plans for shipping spent nuclear fuel to Yucca Mountain "grossly incomplete."

"Their draft transportation plan is barely a crude sketch of the comprehensive planning that should actually be done for a massive nuclear waste shipping campaign," Reid said.

Ensign said: "I have bad news for those of you with working nuclear reactors in your states who think that the opening of Yucca will rid your state of nuclear waste - you're wrong."

Instead the result would be dangerously transporting waste through states around the country to Nevada, said Ensign, R-Nev.

In Nevada the Energy Department is planning a rail line along the "Caliente Corridor," a 300-plus mile east-west route from Caliente near the Utah line to the nuclear dump site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Ward Sproat, the Energy Department official in charge of the Yucca Mountain project, countered that since the early 1960s, more than 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel have taken place in the United States without an accident resulting in the release of harmful radioactive material.

"That record testifies to the safety" of the department's plans to use trains to ship more than 70,000 tons of spent fuel from commercial reactors and defense activities, Sproat said.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, gently questioned that contention.

"Spent radioactive fuel has a dangerous element in that it would live for thousands of years, and if you can get into an accident some day, it may leak," Inouye said.

Inouye then left the hearing and handed the gavel to Ensign, a member of the committee. Ensign presided over questioning of the government witnesses, who included officials from the Transportation Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Sproat said that the earliest shipping could begin is 2020 - the department's current best-case opening date for Yucca Mountain - because the Energy Department needs approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do it.

The commission is weighing whether to grant the Energy Department a license to open the dump.

Michael Weber, director of the commission's Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, acknowledged under questioning from Ensign that the casks planned to transport the waste had not been subjected to physical testing to show whether they could survive a severe accident, such as a terrorist attack or plane crash.

Computer modeling has been used and the casks have been shown to
be safe, Weber said.

Reid and Ensign said the government should require older, cooler spent fuel to be shipped first.

Sproat said all shipments would be accompanied by armed guards and monitored via satellite, and most would be done on dedicated trains.

He said the department needs about 150 "transportation, aging and deposit" canisters, each weighing about 180 tons.

The period for shipping waste to the repository could span up to 50 years, with 190 to 317 rail casks shipped each year on trains carrying three to five casks, according to the Energy Department Web site.

Commercial power reactors have about 64,000 tons of used reactor
fuel at power plants in 33 states awaiting shipment to Yucca Mountain, with the amount growing at the rate of 2,000 tons a year, according to the industry.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)