Seeing Nebraska the Radioactive Way

How Much? Mode of Shipment? When?
92,000 shipments over 30 years
  • Equivalent of 3,000+ shipments per year
Shipments will originate from civilian nuclear power plants and federal energy facilities.
  • 12,600 Rail shipments
  • 79,300 Truck shipments
Beginning in 2010 or later

Once Congress decides where highly radioactive nuclear waste mostly spent fuel rods from more than 100 reactors will be stored for ten thousand years, the debate will focus on the movement of the radioactive materials to one or more storage sites.

For Nebraska, nuclear waste shipments will occur every day for decades. Many questions surrounding spent nuclear fuel remain unanswered: Will Yucca Mountain, Nevada, be the permanent site? Will an interim site be opened to accept waste before 2010? Will trucks or trains be the primary method of transportation? Even though these questions remain unanswered, two reports predict that Nebraska will become one of the top Midwestern states through which the radioactive waste will travel.

3,000+ Shipments A Year
Nationally, an estimated 92,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste currently stored at sites across the nation will be shipped over a period of 30 years. The radioactive waste is currently stored at civilian nuclear power plants and federal energy facilities, most of which are in the eastern United States.

The only site being studied for permanent waste disposal is a mountain in the Nevada desert. Nearly $2 billion has been spent analyzing the mountain's suitability. The federal government has predicted, if Yucca Mountain is suitable for storage, a site will not be ready until 2010 or later.

Opening a temporary site is also a possibility. In 1996, Congress tried to select Yucca Mountain as the temporary as well as the permanent site for the waste, but failed.

Smack Dab in the Middle
With a waste site in the West and the spent nuclear fuel in the East, the state's transportation system sits squarely in the middle.

Researchers analyzing the projected waste shipments estimate that 62 percent of the nation's truck shipments of spent nuclear fuel will cross the state in trucks and 82 percent of the nation's rail shipments will cross the state, making Nebraska one of the top Midwestern corridor states for nuclear waste. Illinois is expected to have 90 percent of the truck shipments use its highways, but only 77 percent of the rail shipments are likely to cross its borders.

According to the Nebraska State Patrol which monitors current waste shipments, only one or two shipments a month presently cross the state.

Waste With An Accent
Beginning as early as next spring, the number of spent fuel shipments could begin to increase even though a permanent storage site has not been picked. About 125 shipments of spent nuclear fuel from foreign reactors will be made from Savannah River, South Carolina to Idaho Falls, Idaho beginning in spring 1998. These shipments were agreed to under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

While the route these shipments will take is undetermined at this time, the spent fuel will likely be shipped by truck and Nebraska's interstate highway is a prime candidate. About ten shipments of foreign nuclear waste will be sent yearly for 13 years.

Seven Times A Day, Everyday
Congress may try to open the nation's interim nuclear waste storage site in Nevada as early as 1999. In April, the Senate passed legislation proposing to do exactly that. The House of Representatives has just begun consideration of the issue, but expects the bill, H.R. 1270, to reach the floor of the House for final action yet this year.

If and when a site opens in Nevada, Nebraska will see a 125-fold to 250-fold increase over current levels of nuclear waste shipments.

A projected 3,000 shipments a year will use the state's highways and train tracks. Instead of one or two shipments a month, state troopers may be escorting seven shipments a day, every day for about 30 years. The train and truck shipments will course through the state's busiest and least trafficked regions equally.

When a truck shipment of nuclear warheads slid off an icy road 40 miles south of Valentine last November, Nebraskans learned about the special precautions taken when nuclear materials are involved in an accident. While no one was injured in the accident and there was no radioactive leakage, the road was closed for several hours. A special tow truck from South Sioux City traveled 12 hours in a blinding snow storm to the accident scene to right the overturned truck. The towing service was paid $25,000 for its efforts.

It Could Be Worse
Nebraska will be spared an additional 38,000 waste shipments from eight nuclear weapons production and storage centers headed for permanent storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant underground salt caverns near Carlsbad, New Mexico. These shipments are also scheduled to begin next spring.

The nearest weapons production centers are in Ohio and Colorado and the waste shipments will travel directly south to the New Mexico storage area.

Getting Ready
While state officials have been preparing for the waste shipments for years, more work remains. Among those issues left unresolved are training for emergency personnel and security costs.

The federal government, under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, is obligated to provide states with technical assistance and funding for nuclear waste shipments being sent to a temporary or permanent storage facility.

Some states that are likely to see dramatic increases in radioactive waste shipments are imposing state permit and fee requirements, in part, to finance emergency personnel training and security costs. Nebraska's legislature has not passed any laws requiring permits or fees associated with these shipments.

Stay tuned. The nuclear waste story has many facets that the Quarterly will be examining in future issues.