Reservations on the Nuclear Train

The Bush/Cheney energy plan has breathed new life into the nuclear industry -- but we still don't know where the waste will go, or how it will get there safely.

| Fri Aug. 17, 2001 3:00 AM EDT

When a train carrying hydrochloric acid derailed and caught fire in a tunnel near Baltimore last month, a silent tremor of fear must have shivered through the boardrooms of nuclear-energy corporations. Nuclear executives know, as few Americans do, that the train could theoretically have been carrying radioactive material; the Department of Energy has approved the use of that track for transport of high-level nuclear waste.

Trains loaded with highly radioactive waste from nuclear plants will be rolling across the American heartland sooner than most people may realize, in large part because the Bush administration intends to re-emphasize nuclear power as part of its energy plan. But more nuclear plants and increased production at existing plants means more waste, which presents a sticky problem for the government and its friends in the energy industry.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

It's been about three decades since the US began producing significant amounts of energy from nuclear fission, but the country has yet to decide on a long-term storage solution for the resulting waste. And assuming, as most experts do, that the controversial storage facility at Yucca Mountain is approved, how will the waste get there? Or to the private storage facility proposed for the Skull Valley Goshute Indian reservation in Utah? The US Department of Energy may be sending it via train (or truck) through a town near you.

Critics of so-called "nuke trains" point out that train derailments in general are on the rise, and there have been dozens of serious "incidents" involving spent fuel shipments since 1949. By some calculations, the contents of a single container of spent nuclear fuel could release as much radioactivity as 200 Hiroshima bombs.

Nuclear industry scientists say safety precautions make the chances of a container breaking open and leaking, even in a serious train wreck, minute. But the Baltimore accident raises questions about their assurances. Casks designed for transport of radioactive waste are built to withstand temperatures of as much as 1,475 degrees for up to 30 minutes. The Baltimore Sun reported that the Baltimore train burned at temperatures as high as 1,500 degrees for several days.

There is also the real threat of terrorism against trains carrying such dangerous cargo -- what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls "radiological sabotage." At a 1996 counter-terrorism symposium in Las Vegas, researchers presented a report on the risks of terrorism and sabotage against nuclear spent-fuel shipments to Yucca Mountain, and urged the NRC to "completely reexamine" their estimates of a terrorist threat.

In Europe, controversy over nuclear waste transport has resulted in massive protests, culminating this year with demonstrators chaining themselves to the tracks. Only "the biggest security operation since World War II" allowed authorities to clear a path for the train. The hubbub spread through Europe; now London is considering an outright ban on nuclear shipments over the city's trouble-prone rails.

On this side of the Atlantic, a growing alliance of activists is betting that if Americans -- especially those who live in the towns on the designated rail lines -- knew of the potential dangers, they too would take to the streets in protest. A shipment of spent fuel from New York to an Idaho processing plant planned for this year may "be the first of tens of thousands of shipments" the federal government would like to see approved, Kevin Kamps, an organizer for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, told Newsweek. In Springfield, Ill., which is on the New York-to-Idaho route, residents in the past protested shipments of napalm through their town. Anti-nuke organizer David Kraft told the Evansville Courier Press, "This stuff makes napalm look like cupcakes."

BRITS TORTURED GAYS TO 'CURE' THEM
In the 1950s and '60s, Great Britain's publicly funded National Health Service forced gays to undergo harsh experimental procedures designed to "cure" them of homosexuality, reports PlanetOut. The NHS used electroshock therapy, hallucinogenic drugs and brainwashing techniques. Gays who agreed to the treatments often did so because their only other choice was prison: Homosexual acts were illegal in Britain at the time. Among those treated was Alan Turing, the noted mathematician and World War II codebreaker, who was reportedly forced to undergo estrogen treatments before he committed suicide in 1954.

INVENTING THE ABORTION DISEASE
Having failed to succeed in the courts and on the streets, the anti-choice brigades are picking a new battlefield: Linguistics. Among their latest linguistic creations is "Post Abortion Stress Syndrome" or PASS. Not recognized as an official diagnosis by any major medical organization, the syndrome is said to involve feelings of guilt and nightmares -- reasonable reactions to a emotionally and physically difficult procedure, but far short of a medical condition. Ms. conjectures that the "syndrome" is a legal invention intended to pave the way for anti-choice groups to file malpractice lawsuits against abortion providers.

As"60 Minutes" recently reported, the term "partial-birth abortion" is also a creation of right-wing abortion foes, who sought an emotionally charged phrase in their quest to outlaw one type of procedure and thereby open the door for an outright ban on abortion.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.