Entry for January 23, 2007

Map from the San Bernadino Sun’s January story, “I-40 lanes shut after truck with plutonium crashes,” by Melissa Pinion-Whitt, Staff Writer.

On January 16, the Nuclear Information and Resource Center issued an alert asking the public to comment by February 5, asking the National Regulatory Council to approve a petition for new rulemaking that would reconcile its generic environmental impact statement for nuclear power plant operating license renewal applications with current scientific understanding of the health risks of low-level radiation, including but not limited to those discussed in the National Academy of Sciences Health Risks From Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) VII Phase 2 Report.

Ironically, shortly after 8 p.m. on January 16, a commercial truck, pulling two trailers, crashed into a guardrail on eastbound Interstate 40, near Needles, CA, rupturing the tractor’s fuel tank and causing the rear trailer to overturn and split open. A 500-pound, 55-gallon drum with the plutonium (EPA fact sheet) was in the front of the damaged trailer and the entire cargo had to be unloaded to get at the drum. There was no global positioning system device on board to track the location of the waste, en route from an electric plant at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA. to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The Richland facility is near Hanford, WA, a key facility in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and the locale of one of the world’s largest environmental cleanups.

Officials from the Department of Health Services arrived just before 5 a.m. to examine a container of radioactive material with a Geiger counter. A four-person team from the National Nuclear Security Administration based at the Nevada Test Site also arrived at the crash site “within hours.”

For information on transportation issues, see the Nuclear Information and Resource Service’s “Hot Cargo.” To keep up with issues see the WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor.

In “Plutonium transit uproar: Crash of truck with radioactive waste in desert stirs concerns,” Andrew Silva, Staff Writer, San Bernadino Sun, wrote 01/21/2007 :

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. …

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

But San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty, who also directs his agency’s hazardous materials unit, said,

This, in and of itself, is very alarming.

He said that the radiation emitted by the truck’s four grams of plutonium-238, roughly the volume of a pencil eraser, emits more than 50 curies, trillions of times more than is allowed in drinking water. The drinking water standard is 15 picocuries per liter, or 15 trillionths of one curie.

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research added,

That’s quite a lot of plutonium . If nothing spilled, it’s not a big issue. I think it’s appalling they had flammable materials on this truck.

Robert Halstead, an expert in the transportation of nuclear waste, who has 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, asked,

What the hell is that doing in that truck?

Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in New Mexico, which for thirty years has followed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a half-mile-deep waste storage facility near Carlsbad, N.M, said tandem trucks are not allowed in shipments to that facility.

I think people should be worried this stuff is being handled so cavalierly. If it were going to WIPP, they couldn’t have shipped it the way they were shipping it.

Marvin Resnikoff, a physicist with Radioactive Waste Management Associates, based in New York, wondered about the potential for terrorism,

I’m floored that they’re actually moving this stuff around without a little more security. You could do tremendous havoc. You could spread this stuff around.

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