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A Times Editorial

Nuclear cargo

Florida's senators will soon vote on a plan that calls for hundreds of shipments of deadly nuclear waste to pass through populous areas of our state.

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002

Florida's senators will soon vote on a plan that calls for hundreds of shipments of deadly nuclear waste to pass through populous areas of our state.

Imagine trucks, railroad cars and barges loaded with containers of the deadliest nuclear waste making hundreds of trips through the state of Florida. That is the image Florida's U.S. senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, should keep in mind when they vote on a plan to ship tons of waste from nuclear power plants to a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Nevada vetoed the plan earlier this year, but Congress can override that veto. The House did so in May, and the Senate is likely to take up the issue this week or next.

There are good reasons to distrust the repository plan, including the threat it poses to the residents of Las Vegas, 90 miles away. But at least the Energy Department has put some effort into studying the underground storage site. It has provided Americans almost no useful information on how the waste material will be delivered from reactors in 39 states to Nevada.

What we do know is that the waste material is so deadly that unshielded it would kill a person 3 feet away in two minutes. The material would be put in containers at reactor sites and shipped by truck, train, barge or a combination of all three. Even a small breach in the container could release enough radioactive gas to cause elevated cancer rates in those exposed.

How likely is it that something will go wrong? The Energy Department estimates there will be about 100 accidents during the life of the project, but critics of the program put the number much higher. That doesn't account for possible terrorist attacks on the shipments.

In Florida, more than 2.1-million people live within a mile of the transportation routes identified by the government, according to Environmental Working Group. The state has five nuclear reactors at three sites: just south of Miami, on the East Coast near Fort Pierce and on the Gulf Coast near Crystal River. Removing the waste would require 5,223 shipments by truck or 348 by train, and the routes would pass within a mile of 1,035 schools. Meanwhile, the state has an average of about 280 fatal truck wrecks and 170 train mishaps a year.

The Energy Department doesn't want to talk about such matters. Under the sway of the nuclear power industry, it is in a hurry to approve the Yucca Mountain plan and to work out the details later. Considering the potential consequences, that approach is inexcusable.

It will be difficult for the overall Senate, and Sens. Graham and Nelson in particular, to justify supporting such a plan before they can assure Americans that it is safe.

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