Trainloads of highly radioactive nuclear waste could someday roll through downtown Colorado Springs on a regular basis, on its way to the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository in Nevada, after the U.S. Senate voted last week to proceed with plans for the controversial dump.
On the other hand, they might not.
No one really knows, because the U.S. Department of Energy, in charge of the Yucca Mountain project, still hasn't decided exactly how it will ship the waste to Nevada. The department wants to bury 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, which has piled up at nuclear power plants all over the country, inside Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas.
But a transportation consultant for the state of Nevada, which has fought the federal government's scheme tooth and nail, says there's a decent chance that trains filled with the radioactive stuff could come straight through the Springs, passing right underneath the Bijou Street bridge downtown.
"DOE's base plan is, 'Yes, there will be rail shipments through Colorado Springs,'" said the consultant, Bob Halstead.
Ship by train
Much discussion in Colorado has focused on whether waste might be shipped by truck on Interstate 70 west of Denver -- an idea that worries many due to the highway's steep grades and sharp curves. However, Department of Energy spokesman Joe Davis said they would prefer to ship most of this material by train.
If that happens, Halstead says, shipments from reactors in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas -- up to 5 percent of all the waste -- might be routed through Amarillo, Texas. From there, he says, they would likely be routed north through Pueblo and Colorado Springs to Denver, before heading west.
To the extent that the government uses trucks to ship the waste, most sources believe it's unlikely it would come through Colorado Springs on Interstate 25 -- though Halstead says it's possible. Shipments could enter Colorado on Interstate 76 and then go south on I-25 through Denver and the Springs, before turning west again on Interstate 40 in Albuquerque, Halstead speculates.
Davis says it will be years before transportation routes are worked out. Shipments to Yucca Mountain aren't scheduled to begin until 2010 at the earliest. "The specifics on the Springs or any other city in the country have not been finalized yet," he said.
Risk of accident
Critics of the Yucca Mountain project worry that shipping the waste by truck or train -- resulting in perhaps as many as 100,000 separate shipments over 20 to 30 years -- creates a disconcerting risk of accidents or terrorist attacks.
Davis, however, points out that the Department of Energy has shipped other types of nuclear waste to and from other sources and destinations for decades. For example, truck shipments of waste from Rocky Flats, the mothballed nuclear-weapons factory northwest of Denver, already come through Colorado Springs regularly on their way to a dump near Carlsbad, N.M.
"We've transported this waste for more than 30 years and never had an incident resulting in a harmful release of radiation, ever," Davis said.
Yucca Mountain critics say that while the likelihood of severe accidents causing the release of radioactive materials is low, the potential consequences are horrific. The Department of Energy itself estimates that a "maximum reasonably foreseeable accident scenario," involving a rail shipment in an urban area, could release enough radioactivity to cause five long-term cancer deaths, while cleanup costs could range from $300,000 to $10 billion.
The state of Nevada, meanwhile, estimates a worst-case rail accident could contaminate an area of more than 30 square miles and cause up to 1,400 cancer deaths within a year.
Nevada experts also believe a terrorist attack on a rail shipment, involving explosives or missiles, could cause from 300 to 18,000 long-term cancer deaths.
Colorado Springs Rep. Joel Hefley voted in favor of the Yucca Mountain project in the House of Representatives in May. Hefley refused to comment on his vote.
In the Senate, Wayne Allard, R-Colo., also supported the project. Allard argued in part that Colorado will benefit from Yucca Mountain because it will enable the removal of spent nuclear fuel currently stored at Fort St. Vrain, a defunct nuclear power plant near Platteville.
Meanwhile, Colorado U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was one of the few Republicans voting against Yucca Mountain in the Senate. Campbell, a former truck driver, has expressed concern about transportation safety.
Allard's Democratic challenger in the upcoming elections, Tom Strickland, criticized Allard's vote. Strickland said that more work needs to be done to evaluate transportation safety and the risk of shipments being attacked by terrorists.
"Too many unresolved questions remain to move forward with the plan," he said.