Hot Rods

Spent nuclear fuel could be barreling down accident-plagued, construction-delayed Interstate 70

Mar 29, 2000 at 4:00 am
The contraption holding 96 nuclear fuel rods that will pass through the St. Louis area in early summer can withstand the following: a 30-foot drop onto an unyielding surface; a head-on collision with a diesel locomotive going 80 mph; being engulfed in a 1,474-degree-Fahrenheit fire for 30 minutes; immersion in water to a depth of at least 660 feet.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) guarantees this. The department says it tested the 20-ton cask, with its 8-inch walls of stainless steel, lead gamma shields and neuron-shield tank, and concluded that it is resistant to earthquakes, fires, collisions and floods. In fact, as a shipment of highly enriched spent fuel from foreign research reactors cuts through St. Louis and across Missouri on Interstate 70, the only way terrorists could even get at the stuff would be with the use of rocket-propelled armor-piercing weapons or high-energy explosive devises.

What the DOE apparently didn't consider, however, was the potential in Missouri for things like exploding methamphetamine labs on the shipment's route, road rage on the Blanchette Memorial Bridge, the occasional highway shutdown by protesters angry with the state's minority-contracting policies and the state highway department itself.

"Why they've picked Missouri, we just don't know," says Ron Kucera, deputy director of policy for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The traveling radioactive cargo is part of 20 metric tons of used material being shipped to the U.S. from 41 foreign research reactors that are running out of their own storage space.

During the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. exported enriched uranium to other countries for agricultural, industrial and medical use. In 1996, the DOE and the U.S. State Department approved a 29-syllable-title policy, the "Nuclear Weapons Nonproliferation Policy Concerning Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel," which, in short, allows the countries to send their spent fuel back to the U.S. The idea, according to the DOE, is to keep the spent fuel in safe hands. But even though it's "spent," the fuel has been so highly enriched that it is still thermally hot and highly radioactive.

Fourteen shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been sent so far, and the program is scheduled to last until 2009. Between now and then, the DOE expects to make one or two shipments each year; 80 percent of the foreign fuel will have to be shipped from the DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Last year's shipment sidestepped Missouri and traveled on Interstate 80 through Illinois and Iowa. But last month, Missouri was informed that the route had been changed.

Kucera and other Missouri public officials, including Gov. Mel Carnahan and St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, are ticked off by the DOE's decision to go through Missouri. Harmon condemned the shipment at a press conference on Thursday; Carnahan wrote a letter last month to the DOE informing the agency that the nuclear shipment was officially uninvited to Missouri.

"Gov. Carnahan made it clear that he opposes most any shipments that pass through Missouri," says Carnahan's spokesman, Jerry Nachtigal. "One of his main concerns was that the proposed route was through St. Louis and/or Kansas City, and coming through cities of several million people was not acceptable, that there's got to be a better route."

The reasons are pretty clear -- the interstate has a terrible track record for accidents and construction delays.

"The Blanchette Bridge, for instance, probably has the highest traffic volume than any other stretch of this route or any of the other possible routes," Kucera says. "The two-way total is something like 186,000 cars per day on the bridge. And every season there is construction on I-70, with lane closures squeezing the interstate down to two lanes. The accident rate on I-70 is something like 6,000 per year. And each accident then causes more potential lane closures."

Indeed, I-70 has its problems. A quick look at the Missouri Department of Transportation's (MoDOT) summer road-construction schedule on I-70 reveals a highway that's not exactly primed to transport the deadliest stuff on earth.

In the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, for example, seven bridges crossing I-70 are currently being torn down and rebuilt, and this summer MoDOT is scheduled to begin tearing down several more. "Motorists should be alert for detours while these bridges are removed," MoDOT's road-construction update warns.

The road west doesn't get a whole lot better. Near Saline County, in mid-Missouri, 14 miles of I-70 will be repaved this summer, and in Kansas City, the eastbound side of the highway's viaduct is scheduled to be reconstructed. Near Columbia, the interstate is supposed to be resurfaced, and MoDOT suggests the following detour for motorists -- a group that presumably includes haulers of spent fuel from foreign research reactors: "Take the Route 65 junction (mile marker 78) and head south to Sedalia. From there take Route 50 east to Route 54 North (Jefferson City). This will bring you to Kingdom City and back to I-70 (mile marker 148)."

Then there's the sharp curve near Cool Valley in St. Louis County. Dubbed the "Bermuda Triangle," it's been the site of hundreds of accidents over the years. And there have also been 23 recorded deaths since '93 on a particularly nasty stretch of the interstate near Warrenton.

Tom Welch, a spokes-man for the DOE in Washington, D.C., says that the decision to use I-70 was based on expediency: It's a lot quicker to go through Missouri than through Illinois and Iowa.

Last year's shipment along I-80 was made by five trucks hauling a total of five casks, Welch explains. There are so many inspections along the way of any shipping route, he says, that the DOE couldn't guarantee that the trucks wouldn't hit major urban areas at rush hour. This year's shipment, though, is only one truck with one cask. That means less time spent on inspections, and the load can be scheduled not to hit St. Louis or Columbia or Kansas City at rush hour.

"When we travel through cities, for example, we're always accompanied by an escort of police cars, and in some states we're accompanied by an escort the entire way through the state," Welch says. "There's been over 2,000 shipments in the past 50 years (of spent nuclear waste of one kind or another), and there's never been any exposure to the public."

However, according to the DOE's "Guide to Foreign Research Reactor Spent Fuel," there have been eight accidents involving similar shipments of fuel: "The accidents ranged from relatively minor (a trailer carrying a cask separated from its tractor in a construction zone...) to severe (a truck carrying spent fuel left the road to avoid a collision with a car, the cask was thrown free into a ditch, and the driver of the truck was killed)."