January 21, 2007

Plutonium transit uproar

Crash of truck with radioactive waste in desert stirs concerns

Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Baking soda, bunk beds, fire extinguishers - and a drum with plutonium-238.

The truck that crashed Tuesday near Needles with a load of radioactive waste was a plain old commercial truck carrying plain old products.

When emergency workers checked the truck's manifest they were surprised that radioactive material was being shipped with ordinary goods.

"This, in and of itself, is very alarming," said San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty, who also directs his agency's hazardous materials unit.

Government and industry officials say shipping radioactive materials by commercial carriers is a perfectly safe, perfectly routine practice.

The containers, the routes and the shipping companies are all heavily regulated, and there has never been an accident that resulted in a release of radiation, they said.

The radiation emitted by the truck's amount of plutonium-238 is trillions of times more than is allowed in drinking water, Brierty said.

The four grams of plutonium involved in the crash would be roughly the volume of a pencil eraser. But that amount kicks out more than 60 curies, a measure of radioactivity.

In contrast, the drinking water standard is 15 picocuries per liter, or 15 trillionths of one curie

"That's quite a lot of plutonium," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research. "If nothing spilled, it's not a big issue & . I think it's appalling they had flammable materials on this truck."

The truck, pulling two trailers, crashed into a guardrail on eastbound Interstate 40, rupturing the tractor's fuel tank and causing the rear trailer to overturn and split open. The driver was unhurt.

Part of the freeway was shut down for 18 hours.

The heavily shielded, 500-pound, 55-gallon drum with the plutonium was in the front of the damaged trailer, California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Callahan said. The entire cargo had to be unloaded to get at the drum.

The drum was undamaged, and there was no leakage of radiation.

"What the hell is that doing in that truck?" said Robert Halstead, an expert in the transportation of nuclear waste.

He's been working with the state of Nevada in battling the proposal to build a repository for highly radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas.

If the Yucca Mountain repository is built, it will hold extremely radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Much of the waste on its way there will have to come through San Bernardino County.

Even in the unlikely event that the containment drum in Tuesday's crash had been breached, it would be almost impossible for that bit of plutonium to pose a major threat, government officials said.

"There is no way the material can be spread because it's encapsulated," said Kevin Roark, a spokesman for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where the shipment was headed.

The plutonium in this case was a "sealed source," meaning the material was blended in a solid mix that would make it difficult or nearly impossible to be broken up, he said.

The material was on its way from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. The lab is near Hanford on the Columbia River, a key facility in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and now the scene of one of the world's largest environmental cleanups.

Plutonium-238 is only a health threat if it's inhaled, and to a lesser degree if it's ingested.

But a microscopic speck floating inside the body could lead to cancer.

That's why some groups were up in arms over NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn. The spacecraft, launched in 1997, uses plutonium-238 as a heat source.

They worried that in case of a disaster, the plutonium could be widely dispersed in the atmosphere, leading to untold future cancers.

NASA countered that the small containers, each about the size of bullet, were designed to remain intact no matter what happened.

Plutonium-238 emits alpha particles, the least energetic form of radiation, unable to pass through even a sheet of paper.

A person could stand next to a chunk of plutonium-238 with virtually no risk unless a fine particle was floating in the air and he or she inhaled it.

Plutonium-238 until a few years ago was even used to power cardiac pacemakers.

"People have an irrational fear of radiation," Los Alamos' Roark said. "As long as it's in an approved container, it's OK to use regular shipping."

The shipping containers and trucking companies must meet strict standards imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The containers must be impervious to high-velocity collisions and intense fires.

After arriving at Los Alamos, the material will eventually be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, a half-mile-deep waste storage facility near Carlsbad, N.M.

Once on its way to WIPP, the plutonium is handled very differently.

Special trucks are monitored with Global Positioning System satellites and carry only radioactive waste destined for disposal, unlike the commercial truck that crashed.

"I think people should be worried this stuff is being handled so cavalierly," said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in New Mexico, which has followed WIPP for 30 years. "If it were going to WIPP, they couldn't have shipped it the way they were shipping it."

For example, no tandem trailers would be allowed, he said.

Once emergency officials at the scene of Tuesday's crash looked at the truck's manifest and realized there was plutonium aboard, the U.S. Department of Energy was notified.

A four-person team from the National Nuclear Security Administration based at the Nevada Test Site, where scores of nuclear bombs were detonated, arrived at the crash site within hours.

Fire Marshal Brierty praised the quick response and professionalism of the team.

All fire stations and CHP officers who work in the commercial division are equipped with radiation detectors.

"I'd rather be next to (a truck carrying radioactive waste) than a propane truck," said CHP Officer Matt Dietz, who's based in San Bernardino.

He's done numerous escorts of radioactive shipments and is trained to respond to accidents involving radiation.

"More radioactive material is going down the road than you realize," he said. "I trust the way these things are packaged more than other stuff. The biggest thing is public perception."

Another expert who's worked on transport issues for 30 years had a fair amount of confidence in the shipping containers but worried more about terrorism.

"I'm floored that they're actually moving this stuff around without a little more security," said Marvin Resnikoff, a physicist with Radioactive Waste Management Associates, based in New York. "You could do tremendous havoc. You could spread this stuff around."