Nuclear Trains to Yucca Mountain Would Cross Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, Nevada, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Energy Department will depend mostly upon trains to transport spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste to the national repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, if the site is licensed, the agency said Monday. Hundreds of those rail shipments would pass through downtown Las Vegas, according to a state nuclear transport expert.

The 70,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste that would be transported is currently stored at 127 sites in 44 states around the nation.

The "mostly rail" national scenario developed by the Department of Energy (DOE) would result in 9,646 rail cask-shipments to Nevada over 24 years, and 18,935 rail cask-shipments to Nevada over 38 years, the State of Nevada estimates.

Some of the rail shipments would pass through the city of Las Vegas on their way to Yucca Mountain, according to transportation consultant Robert Halstead with the State of Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects.

"DOE and Nevada studies indicate that selection of Caliente will result in rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste through downtown Las Vegas on the Union Pacific mainline, which is located about 120 yards from the door to today’s hearing room," Halstead testified March 5 in Las Vegas before the Railroad Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.


A train on the Union Pacific line passes hotels in downtown Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy Railroad Crossings)
Halstead estimated the number of rail cask-shipments through Las Vegas over 24 years could be as low as 660, seven percent of the total, or as high as 8,564, which amounts to 89 percent of the total.

Halstead said 39,000 residents of Las Vegas live within one-half mile of the rail line. When the school population, workers, and hotel and casino guests are added in, the average daily exposed population within one-half mile of the route is about 86,000, he told the subcommittee.

Energy Department spokesman Allen Benson said Monday some shipments might require transport by road because not all storage facilities are served by rail lines. In fact, at least 25 of the power plant sites cannot ship directly by rail, and Nevada studies show that number could be up to 32 sites.

Benson said March 30 the Department of Energy (DOE) is also developing a transportation backup plan for shipment by road.

The Yucca Mountain site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas was first identified as a possible location for storage of the nation's nuclear waste in 1987, but the project has been beset with criticism and skepticism.

In July 2002, Congress approved the Yucca Mountain site for development, and President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, but the state of Nevada has filed legal action to block construction of the repository which is still pending.


Yucca Mountain site in rural Nevada (Photo courtesy DOE)
If it is constructed, Yucca Mountain is not expected to be complete until 2010.

Democratic Nevada Senator Harry Reid told the "Las Vegas Review-Journal," that the Energy Department is premature and hasty in its approval of a rail transport plan. "There is absolutely no way that they can safely transport nuclear waste regardless of how they want to do it," said Reid, who also objects to a truck transport plan on safety grounds.

Republican Senator from Nevada John Ensign, called the department arrogant for moving ahead before the court has ruled on Nevada's cases.

In order to connect the Yucca Mountain site with an existing rail line, the Energy Department plans construction of a rail spur at Caliente, Nevada and a 319 mile rail line between the two sites.

Caliente is located 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas in the eastern portion of Nevada near the state's border with Utah. The Caliente corridor was previously identified as the Energy Department's preferred alternative for building a rail line in Nevada to service the Yucca Mountain facility, but the decision was formalized on Monday.


Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on a visit to Yucca Mountain on January 7, 2002. (Photo courtesy DOE)
The Energy Department predicts the line and rail spur will cost an estimated $880 million and might not be complete before 2016. If the Yucca Mountain site is licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Energy Department says it will ship waste in casks on trucks until the rail line is completed.

The Energy Department estimates a 46 month schedule to build a rail line, but officials say they must wait to break ground until they receive a construction authorization from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expected in 2007 at the earliest.

In its March 29 response to the federal Bureau of Land Management's proposal to withdraw a one mile wide swath of public land stretching from Caliente to the proposed Yucca Mountain site, the State of Nevada warns that the withdrawal would disrupt normal mining, ranching and recreational activities in Nevada, but it should not be considered routine.

"The purpose for which DOE is seeking to segregate this land is unique and has the potential to negatively and substantially impact people and the environment in an unprecedented way," wrote the state.

"An accident involving release of this material could result in massive and long-lasting environmental damage. Even without an accident, repeated exposures to routine radiation being emitted by the shipping containers over long periods of time can result in negative health consequences," the state warns.

About 90 percent of the wastes shipped to the repository would be spent nuclear fuel from commercial power reactors. Fission products, especially strontium-90 with a half-life 28 years, and cesium-137 with a half-life of 30 years, would account for most of the radioactivity in the spent nuclear fuel during transportation to the repository, and would be the primary sources of exposure during routine transportation operations.


Rail line running through Caliente, Nevada, population 1,000. (Photo by David A. Wright courtesy Ghost
"Cesium-137 would be the major potential source of irradiation and contamination if a shipping cask were to be breached during a severe transportation accident or successful terrorist attack," the State of Nevada warned the BLM.

The waste destined for the site is spent nuclear fuel rods from the nation's 104 nuclear power plants and highly radioactive materials left from nuclear weapons production. It is currently stored where it was generated at 127 locations across the country.

Critics of the Yucca Mountain plan note that federal officials have raised many technical concerns about the project, including a finding that the manufactured storage containers in which the government plans to store nuclear waste at the facility will probably leak.

The Yucca Mountain project is the subject of an array of lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and state officials predict this transportation decision will result in further legal action.

The Yucca Mountain project is the subject of an array of lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and state officials predict this decision will result in further legal action.


Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican, is adamantly opposed to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste respository. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Pending lawsuits challenging the Yucca Mountain program on a variety of grounds are currently in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and decisions in these cases are expected by mid-2004.

If Nevada prevails in any of these challenges, the Yucca Mountain program would be either terminated or at the least set back and delayed significantly.

One of the lawsuits challenges the Energy Department's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Yucca Mountain, charging, among other deficiencies, that the Final EIS failed to adequately assess impacts of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain.

The state is alleging that analysis of potential impacts is insufficient to support future transportation decisions, including the selection of a rail corridor in Nevada from among the five potential corridors identified in the EIS. If Nevada prevails in this case, the Department of Energy cannot move forward with the identification of a preferred rail access route until deficiencies in the EIS are corrected.

Halstead also warned the subcommittee about the challenges posed by "rugged terrain" along the Caliente rail corridor. The first 100 miles of the corridor are "especially problematic," he said.

Steep grades and sharp curves would require the trains to slow to 15-20 miles per hour upgrade and 25 miles per hour downgrade on these segments, projected Halstead. "Because of the overall length of the line, 319 miles, DOE studies indicate that the trains will have to operate on other non-mountain segments of the line at speeds up to 60 miles per hour in order to comply with the 12-hour limit for crew operations," he said.