Report contradicts findings of tunnel fire nuclear threat

Agency says no radiation would have leaked during 2001 disaster in Baltimore

April 03, 2003|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Metal containers designed to transport spent nuclear fuel would have survived the intense heat from a blaze in a Baltimore rail tunnel in July 2001, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC's findings contradict a report by a private firm last year which said the containers would have failed, causing a catastrophic radiation leak.

More than 300,000 people in the Baltimore area would have been exposed to radiation from the containers, built to withstand 1,475 degrees for 30 minutes, said the report, prepared by Radioactive Waste Management Associates. Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects commissioned the report. Nuclear shipments are not now transported through the tunnel.

Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, said he was unaware of the report by Radioactive Waste Management Associates and could not comment on it. A spokesman for the firm said the report's author was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The fire erupted after a CSX freight train derailed in the Howard Street Tunnel, a major East Coast freight route running beneath the city's shopping district. The fire raged for more than three days after a tank car carrying 28,600 gallons of liquid tripropylene caught fire.

The train was not carrying spent fuel, but the NRC examined the outcome of two scenarios involving the potentially deadly cargo. In the first scenario, the container was located one rail car's length, about 65 feet, from the flaming tripropylene tanker. The second placed the spent fuel container just 16 feet from the blaze. Both NRC studies concluded that the spent fuel containers would have withstood the fire without releasing radiation.

The metal spent fuel containers hauled by trains can weigh as much as 145 tons fully loaded. Burnell, of the NRC, said during tests the metal containers have withstood impacts from tractor-trailer trucks, they've been immersed in pools of flaming jet fuel and they've been dropped on long steel spikes to see if they would puncture.

"In all cases, the tests results demonstrate that the integrity of the casks would not have been compromised," said Burnell.

Last year, President Bush approved Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the depository for about 77,000 tons of spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste that's being stored in 39 states, including Maryland. Baltimore is one of 109 cities with populations of more than 100,000 along the likely shipping routes.

About 20 percent of the nation's electricity is generated by 103 commercial nuclear plants, and some are running out of storage space for spent fuel. No spent fuel is being shipped, but when Yucca Mountain opens in 2010, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of shipments of high-level waste would be sent there annually for 24 to 38 years.

Many Nevada residents are angry about the plan to ship radioactive waste from 131 commercial, research and military reactors to Yucca Mountain. Nevada officials, including Sen. Harry Reid, a ranking Democrat, have tried to derail the plan by focusing on the dangers of transporting high-level nuclear waste.

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