Coming Soon to a Highway Near
One of the concerns with building a so-called "low-level" radioactive
waste (LLRW) dump in our state that often gets ignored is, how will the waste
get from locations all over the country to a site in west Texas? The answer
is, unfortunately, along the same freeways we drive on - through major Texas
cities, suburbs, and rural areas, near large portions of the state's population.
Assessing the Likelihood of Accidents
Several years ago, when the plan was to put the LLRW "disposal"
facility at Sierra Blanca, the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority
prepared a Transportation Risk Assessment. (The Texas Legislature later abolished
the Authority and most of its responsibilities.) This risk assessment attempted
to predict the likelihood of accidents involving transported radioactive waste
and the potential extent of damage and threat to public health and the environment.
Problems with the Assessment
There were a number of areas where the consultants concluded the risks of transporting
radioactive waste to a dump was underestimated: the number of people likely
to be affected, the likelihood of transportation accidents, the potential severity
of a major accident, and the number of shipments to the proposed facility. All
of these concerns are still valid today.
Trucks are Trucks
Contrary to industry mythology, transportation accidents involving trucks
carrying radioactive materials occur regularly, for a variety of reasons. These
are the same reasons that other heavy trucks have accidents (fatigue, weather,
animals, drinking, etc.) In other words, all trucks have the same standard,
estimated accident rate - an accident about every 150,000 miles traveled. In
the U.S., in the period from 1971 to 1994, there were 1485 accidents involving
radioactive materials; 149 packages released their radioactive contents.
No Wreck, So A-OK?
Not quite. There will be radioactivity escaping from some of those trucks even without an accident. All low-level waste containers emit radioactivity, even the heavily shielded shipments of highly radioactive nuclear reactor components. The maximum allowable radiation on the surface of a container is 200 millirems, an amount equal to 10 X-rays, per hour. So even if no accidents happen, the shipments expose everyone along the transportation route to radiation. Assuming the regulations are followed, the amount of radiation exposure from each truck would be small, but the effect of radiation (the total number of latent cancers) is a function of the total exposure. Why do you think the hygienist always leaves the room when you get your teeth X-rayed?
Where Are Accidents Likely to Occur?
The Disposal Authority used some averages of severity calculated by Sandia National Laboratories with a method developed in 1976 (and never updated). RWMA questions some of the assumptions made in that method, most especially the assumption that the extreme accidents would occur in rural areas, while minor accidents would occur in urban areas. Their study of extremely severe accidents (in Nevada) analyzed by the National Transportation Safety Board, showed that almost all such accidents occur in cities and suburbs, not rural areas.
Lots and Lots of Waste
The proposed LLRW facility that the Authority was doing a transportation risk
assessment for was one that was to receive only radioactive waste from the Compact
states (the Compact was an agreement between Texas, Vermont, and Maine to "dispose
of" the three states' LLRW in Texas - Maine has since dropped out of the
Compact). Although there were problems with the estimates of the amount of waste
(and thus the number of shipments) that would come to Sierra Blanca, current
law makes those estimates irrelevant.
Less is Not Necessarily Better
Since 1980 the volume of radioactive waste shipped to management and "disposal" facilities in the U.S. has decreased significantly. But this is due, in large part, to waste being super-compacted, resulting in smaller volumes of more highly radioactive material. HB 1567 establishes practically no limits on the amount of radioactivity in the waste going to the dump. Naturally enough, as the total radioactivity in waste shipments increases, so do the doses from normal (accident-free) transportation and the risks associated with potential accidents.
Consider a few examples of the kind of things that can go wrong in transporting radioactive material: In downtown San Antonio in 1994, a truck carrying radioactive waste fell on its side on an I-10 freeway ramp near the Alamodome, spilling some radioactive waste onto the highway. In 1988, a shielded container (called "type B" and designed to withstand certain test conditions) containing 17-curie iridium-192 fell out of a pick-up and was run over by a car outside Houston. The thimble-sized material was released, and by the time it was found several hours later (with a Geiger counter), it had exposed many people to levels of radiation equivalent to three X-rays per second. In 2001, a 22-ton shipment of low-level radioactive waste, headed for Waste Control Specialists' processing site in Andrews County, was lost for nearly a month when it reached Texas. The truck was finally found on a ranch near the Oklahoma border, where a disgruntled employee had abandoned the truck and its cargo.
For information about helping fight the establishment of a
so-called "disposal" site for low-level radioactive waste in Texas,
contact Margot Clarke, Outreach Coordinator for the Lone Star Chapter, at the
Sierra Club State Conservation Office in Austin at 512-477-1729 or email her
Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club