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Nuclear transportation safety: the debate continues.

The safety of nuclear waste transportation is under debate again in 1997 as Congress considers legislation to put a temporary storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in Nevada.

Concern about transportation safety and political opposition from Nevada, environmental groups and President Clinton derailed similar legislation last year.

The interim facility is backed by nuclear utilities that are running out of storage space for spent fuel and expect the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to take ownership of their spent fuel starting next January, as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. On Jan. 30, 1997, a lawsuit was filed by several state attorneys general, public utility commissions and electric utility companies that seek to force DOE to say how it will handle the waste. And, in a related development, 11 utilities are working with the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians to build a spent fuel storage facility on tribal land in Utah.

When significant amounts of spent fuel will hit the road is anyone's guess. Reaction is mixed: The prospect of numerous shipments is alarming to some, but no cause for concern to others. Historically, there have been some 2,500 shipments, with no death or injury due to the radioactive nature of the cargo.

Despite this excellent safety record, nuclear shipments are generally feared by the public. And state lawmakers find themselves caught in the political crossfire of these varied perspectives.

The safety of spent fuel transportation is primarily a federal responsibility, but Congress has recognized a state role as well. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are responsible for packaging regulations, certifications of container safety, regulations governing sabotage, escorts, routing and employee training.

To address perceived gaps in federal law, states have enacted several regulatory mechanisms including permits, routing, liability rules, inspections, notification and emergency training, to ensure safe transport of spent fuel and other hazardous material.

Eighteen states require truckers to get permits before hauling spent fuel. Permits usually involve an evaluation of a trucking company's operations and its past compliance with safety requirements. Permits and registration fees go to support emergency response planning and preparedness.

Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio and West Virginia have adopted a system that allows a trucking firm to get a hazardous material transportation permit from its home state that is honored in the other participating states.

At least five additional states are considering joining this group of states called the Alliance for Uniform HazMat Transportation Procedures. The Federal Highway Administration is evaluating whether the proposed alliance program should become a federal rule.

All states are part of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an organization of truck inspectors that has developed a stringent safety procedure for trucks carrying nuclear cargo. In addition, 10 states designate specific routes for nuclear shipments using federal guidelines that, in theory, identify the safest highways.

Generally, states that have nuclear power plants or a federal nuclear facility have developed the capacity to handle radiological emergencies, often in partnership with DOE or the nuclear plant operator. A number of transportation corridor states, however, are not as well prepared and are seeking funding to upgrade their response capabilities in case of transportation accidents. DOE will provide some money to states where spent fuel travels.

DOE's recent decision to privatize transportation of prospective spent fuel shipments also is being met with mixed reactions. At a recent meeting of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, Brad Mettam of Inyo County, Calif., objected to placing spent fuel transportation policy decisions in the hands of private contractors, whose goals of cutting costs and minimizing regulatory compliance conflict with county and state objectives for public input, involvement in routing decisions and optimal safety. Comments on the privatized approach ended March 31.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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