Nuclear Scaremongering From The New York Times? Who'd Have Thought?
I'm having a fun week. First, I got to rip a new hole into The New York Post
for a ridiculous article which invented a number of 'facts' about a new Toyota airplane, and now this anti-nuke Op-Ed from the New York Times
goes begging for the same treatment. Let's begin:
With the arrest of Jose Padilla, our worst fears were confirmed: Al Qaeda was planning to build and detonate a dirty bomb containing nuclear material in an American city. A danger previously relegated to Hollywood screenplays is now a reality.
Actually, our worst fears are nuclear fission bombs, closely followed by biological attacks, and of course, being forced to watch Madeline Albright and Janet Reno in a nude mud wrestling match.
'Dirty' nuclear bombs are primarily economic weapons. They don't kill a lot of people (compared to an actual fission bomb or bio warfare), but they can create an expensive cleanup job. But the threat is by no means as dire as an actual nuclear detonation, by a few orders of magnitude. Let's not exaggerate, Jim.
At the same time, the Senate is in the process of making the most important transportation decision of the new century — whether or not to move 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste from power plants nationwide to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Okay, it's perspective time. It's a good thing that he said, "The most important transportation decision of the new
century", because that same decision was already made in the last one, 35 years before it ended. Since then, more than 3,000 shipments of used fuel, covering 1.7 million highway and rail miles, have been safely completed in the United States. Over 10 times that amount has been shipped by various methods in other countries. There has NEVER been a nuclear fuel leak.
The implication in the Op-Ed that nuclear waste shipments are a new threat is misleading at best, and intentionally dishonest at worst. The net effect of opening Yucca Mountain will be to add 200 to 400 shipments per year to the large number of shipments already taking place.
For more than 20 years, debate on the Yucca Mountain project has centered on only half of the issue. The Department of Energy has spent more than $7 billion and 24 years studying the geology of potential repository sites, but only four percent of that has been spent on transportation issues.
That's because huge money has ALREADY been spent on transportation issues. Nuclear material shipment has been studied by many other agencies, including the U.S. military (how do you think nuclear material gets to all those subs, carriers, and warheads?), the NRC, DOE, DOT, EPA, and probably the XFL, PGA, and the NHL.
Again, the implication in this paragraph is that the issue of transporting waste has been dangerously neglected. In fact, it's one of the most well-understood and engineered parts of the whole process.
Government officials believe Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have sought to purchase uranium and the other necessary tools to make a dirty bomb.
Yep. They sure have. I wonder, though, if they've purchased the materials required to steal a 40-ton nuclear waste cask? Wasn't that Achmed I saw carrying around that 80-ton flatbed crane? Oh, and are they prepared to mount a military operation against a nuclear convoy surrounded by armed guards? And if they manage to kill all the guards and leave the truck in driving condition, how far are they going to get?
And you can't just open the cask and take out the nuclear materials. These casks are sealed, and it takes professionals with the right tools something like seven hours to open one of them. So forget the scenarios involving terrorists digging their hands into a broken cask at an accident site and running around like deranged fairies sprinkling nuclear dust on everyone - it isn't going to happen.
Nuclear fuel convoys are hard targets. Terrorists don't like hard targets. They like killing women, children, and other people who don't shoot back. And if they tried to attack a convoy, the likely result would be a vehicle accident, some gunfire, a bunch of dead terrorists, and an intact cask being airlifted away from the scene by the U.S. military. As terrorist threats go, nuclear waste shipments are pretty far down on the list.
According to experts, each truck container of spent nuclear fuel (containers used for rail and barge transport would be bigger) headed for Yucca Mountain would carry more radioactive material than was released by the nuclear bombs used in World War II. If one of these containers were breached, in an accident or a terrorist attack, the results would be catastrophic.
Now THAT is an inflammatory paragraph. Sure, each container contains more material by weight than was used in the two WWII fission bombs. But then, so does Ted Kennedy. So what? It's not fissionable material, and the comparison is ridiculous unless the goal is not to provide facts, but to scare people.
If a nuclear container were breached in an accident (and that's a BIG 'if', as you'll see), the result would be radiation poisoning of the people directly involved in the accident, maybe, and a HAZMAT cleanup job. This material isn't an aerosol, and isn't going to pollute the nearest city. It will spill on the ground, and have to be cleaned up.
If terrorists could blow one up, they could disperse material farther. But good luck cracking one of these things open. These casks have walls one-foot thick, and are compartmentalized internally. They can take a direct hit from a shoulder-launched missile without cracking open. Crashing a plane into them won't crack them open.
Vehicles carrying nuclear casks have been involved in 90 accidents since they started transporting waste. Not once
has one spilled any material.
Before Congress makes any decision on where to store this country's nuclear waste, it must first determine whether that waste can be safely transported on our highways, waterways and railways.
Something that has already been determined. Not only were extensive studies done on the safety of transporting waste, but we now have almost 40 years of empirical data that shows that transporting waste IS safe. We do it all the time. We'll continue to do it, whether or not Yucca mountain is opened.
The last thing we need is a 'study' on very technical issues carried out by the non-technical yammerheads in Congress. Especially a redundant one.
Congress must require that the Department of Energy conduct a comprehensive risk assessment considering all potential hazards, including terrorist threats. Congress must also demand that the department develop a transportation safety plan that outlines steps to be taken in the event of terrorist acts and accidents. And there must be full-scale testing of the containers to be used for transporting this waste. The transportation plan must be created in an open process that includes input from state and local officials and the public. With our enemy in active pursuit of dirty bombs, our considerations about nuclear waste management have to change.
Unless our previous studies already considered those issues and concluded satisfactorily. Believe it or not, terrorists attacking waste convoys is not a new concept. That scenario has always been part of nuclear waste transportation risk assessment.
As for testing the casks, they are already tested and have been for decades. Specifically, the NRC requires that each cask design pass a certification trial that includes: a 30-foot fall onto a flat, unyielding surface; a 40-inch drop onto a vertical steel rod; exposure to a 1,475° F fire for 30 minutes; and submersion under three feet of water for eight hours.
Transportation casks have been driven into brick walls at 65 mph. They have been slammed with forces designed to simulate an 80mph train wreck. They have been totally immersed in fires for hours. Computer simulations that are very well understood go even further and test casks against multitudes of different accident and terrorist scenarios. They do not break open.
Secretary Abraham has said there is plenty of time to create a transportation plan before Yucca Mountain begins receiving nuclear waste eight years from now. But safety issues will almost certainly get short shrift if they are not addressed before the repository site is approved.
Well, that's a nice tautology. Safety issues will get short shrift unless we study them. And my supper will get short shrift unless I eat it. Good thinking, Jim.
Congress needs to force the Department of Energy to reassess the dangers of transporting high-level nuclear waste and develop a secure plan before proceeding with the Yucca Mountain project.
This whole issue is a red herring, because nuclear waste shipment will continue whether or not Yucca is approved. If the shipments are not safe from terrorist attacks, does it really matter if we have 200 shipments a year instead of 500? All the terrorists need is one. And if they are completely safe, who cares how many there are?
I actually have no problem with re-assessing the specifics of design and transport of nuclear casks given what we know about the new terrorist threat. That seems to me to be a reasonable thing to do.
Such evaluations should be done by engineers and scientists, and the results should be used to improve upon the design of the casks and the system as a whole. But this article's alarmist tone and misleading 'facts' suggest that such a re-assessment should be carried out by politicians who would have to use copious amounts of their soft-money donations to buy a clue about nuclear engineering, and the end result would be a lot of hand waving and the closure of Yucca mountain.
The strange part about this Op-Ed is that the author, Jim Hall, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering's Committee on Combating Terrorism, was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001. He is undoubtedly familiar with the points I raised here. So what's the deal? Was this article intentional misinformation designed to scare people? Or just sloppy work?
Oh, wait, it's the New York Times Op-Ed page. Therefore, we can assume it's a political screed with a biased viewpoint and an agenda. What was I thinking?