WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 20—Yesterday the federal government dispatched a convoy of vehicles carrying European nuclear waste under armed guard from its Savannah River, South Carolina, nuclear facility across the country to the National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho. To reassure the public, the Department of Energy said it will have a satellite tracking the convoy every inch of the way as it moves west. The burned-out nuclear fuel comes from a reactor in Heidelberg, Germany.
The trip underscores a seldom noticed practice, begun as part of the Eisenhower Atoms for Peace program, in which the U.S. acts as a nuclear dump for 41 other nations. Under Atoms for Peace, the U.S. tried to spread atomic power for so-called peaceful uses to the rest of the world. To ensure other countries wouldn’t jump in and use the technology to build bombs, Ike promised to take back the spent radioactive fuel and dump it somewhere here. Atoms for Peace turned into a colossal failure and was abandoned long ago, but the dumping policy lives on, and indeed was reasserted under Clinton’s Foreign Research-Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel Acceptance Program, which was started as a way of preventing U.S.-produced nuclear materials from getting into the hands of terrorists or foreign governments trying to build nuclear weapons.
Over the next decade, ships carrying spent fuel will dock in California and South Carolina, unload the highly enriched fuel, and haul it to storage sites in Idaho and elsewhere. Trouble is, the U.S. has no disposal sites for its own spent fuel, now piling up around the country and awaiting a decision from Congress on where to bury it. Even so, the Bush administration is touting nukes as a clean, safe source of energy.
Last summer, the government was blocked from sending a similar shipment through Missouri after intense public outcry and resistance from the state government. Now, however, Missouri wants to ship its own nuclear wastes to South Carolina and so is relenting and allowing the foreign fuel to pass through. Opponents worry about it leaking into the environment on the trip west, or contaminating people along the road, for example harming a pregnant woman’s unborn baby. “The thing that to me is so incredible is that we don’t have any location for our own irradiated fuel rods,” says Kay Drey of the Missouri Coaltion for the Environment. “Underground isn’t safe. It could potentially get into the water people drink, animals drink, forever. So here we are taking away waste from 41 other countries with no other place to put it.”
The Energy Department insists the shipment is safe. “There’s no danger,” a spokesperson said. “The fuel is in containers called casks, made of stainless steel and lead, and it is safe to walk around them, and there is no harm to the environment.”
Said another spokesperson, “I’ve heard that you could spend the whole day hugging the thing and it would be less radiation than a dental X ray.”
Additional reporting: Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson and Sandra Bisin