A proposed nuclear waste facility in Nevada could draw hundreds -- and perhaps thousands -- of shipments of radioactive material through Maryland aboard trucks, trains or even barges towed up the Chesapeake Bay, federcidents or even terrorist attacks similar to the alleged sabotage that caused the derailment of an Amtrak passenger train in Arizona this week.
"We do not want another Three Mile Island debacle, courtesy of terrorism along the 2,000-mile route to Yucca Mountain," said Paul Novak of Clearville, Pa.
Department of Energy officials, who conducted the hearing, said they would consider transportation risks as they weigh whether to store nuclear waste in tunnels bored into Nevada's Yucca Mountain in the desert near Las Vegas. They said the waste would be shipped in sealed, lead-lined steel casks strong enough to withstand explosions or 30-foot plunges.
The federal agency has been ordered by Congress to determine the suitability of Yucca Mountain as the nation's only long-term repository for spent nuclear plant fuel and other highly radioactive waste, which can emit lethal doses of radiation for thousands of years.
The study of Yucca Mountain's fuel storage prospects has dragged on for more than a decade and has cost $2 billion so far. The projected start of the project has slipped from 1998 to 2010, forcing many nuclear power plants to build extra storage on site for their mounting stockpiles of spent fuel rods.
Officials estimate that it could cost $33 billion to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain for the next century at least. A final decision on whether to go ahead won't be made until 2000, said Wendy R. Dixon, manager of the project's environmental impact study. But cross-country shipments of nuclear waste could begin as early as 1998. Under pressure from nuclear plant operators, Congress is considering legislation to establish an "interim" repository in Nevada. Spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste would be stored in concrete casks above ground at the old nuclear weapons testing range near Yucca Mountain until a long-term storage facility is ready.
The used fuel rods now are stored in pools at 109 operating nuclear power plants around the country, and 76 plants have been forced to build additional on-site storage.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has nearly 1,700 old rods at its Calvert Cliffs facility on the bay shore in Calvert County, a ZTC company spokesman said. The utility recently built concrete and steel casks for its extra rods and has enough space to last until about 2015, said the spokesman, Karl Neddenien.
Nuclear industry spokesmen noted that utility customers have been paying a fee in their electric bills for years to finance the development of a long-term waste storage facility such as the one planned for Yucca Mountain. That fee amounts to about 26 cents on the average monthly bill of BGE household customers, Mr. Neddenien said.
Radioactive spent fuel has been shipped without any leaks or harm for more than 20 years, industry officials noted. But shipments would increase dramatically if Yucca Mountain becomes the nation's nuclear waste repository.
An Energy Department consultant estimated 130 rail shipments of spent fuel from Calvert Cliffs alone over a 24-year period, plus 520 smaller shipments from civilian research and military reactors in Maryland. If hauled by truck, these materials would require 1,850 shipments, said Steven Maheras, a Department of Energy consultant.
Nevada state officials, who oppose the Yucca repository, appeared at yesterday's hearing to point out that waste might be shipped by barge from Calvert Cliffs to Baltimore, where it could be loaded on trains for the trip west.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear power plants, must approve spent-fuel transportation plans, and the state of Maryland could designate what routes it wants such shipments to take, Energy Department officials said.