Statement of Bruce Josten on Transportation of Spent Rods to the Proposed Yucca Mountain Storage Facility
Statement of R. Bruce Josten, Executive Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Highways and Transit Subcommittee and Railroads Subcommittee on Joint Hearing on Transportation of Spent Rods to the Proposed Yucca Mountain Storage Facility
April 25, 2002
Thank you Chairman Petri, Chairman Quinn, Ranking Member Borski, Ranking Member Clement, and Members of the Subcommittees, for this opportunity to provide testimony on one of the most critical issues facing the U.S. Congress this year - whether to finally approve a safe, secure location for the proper disposal of spent nuclear material at Yucca Mountain. My name is Bruce Josten and I am Executive Vice President for Government Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Chamber represents more than three million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region.
The federal government is obligated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) to transport spent nuclear materials from the nation's commercial nuclear power plants and to operate a repository for these materials. Approval of Yucca Mountain is an opportunity to fulfill this promise. Although my testimony will focus on the safety of transporting the spent nuclear material to Yucca Mountain, I will also make a few points on the need for the site and its suitability as a repository for spent nuclear material.
The United States is at a critical juncture, and must now decide how to finally dispose of the spent nuclear material generated over the last fifty years. In the next few months, the U.S. Congress will consider whether to approve Yucca Mountain as a repository for spent nuclear material. Few questions before the Congress will have greater impact on our nation's long-term energy security. There is overwhelming evidence to support this designation. The U.S. Chamber, therefore, strongly supports Congressional passage of a resolution of repository siting approval for Yucca Mountain.
1. The Safe Transportation of Spent Nuclear Material
The first, and most critical, fact about the transportation of spent nuclear material is that it has been done safely for more than 40 years. Since 1964, there have be more than 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear material. These materials have traveled more than 1.7 million miles on U.S. highways and railroads. No nuclear fuel container has ever leaked or cracked in any way. Out of these thousands of shipments, there have been only eight accidents, four highway and four rail. No radiation was released in any of these accidents.
Spent nuclear material is transported in massive containers weighing 25 tons for truck shipments and 75 to 125 tons for rail shipments. Six layers of steel and other materials confine the radioactivity. Typically, for every ton of spent material, there is more than three tons of protective shielding.
Part of this success in safely transporting spent nuclear material is due to the rigorous process by which the containers used in transportation are certified. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must license any container used to transport spent nuclear material. The NRC will not license a container unless it has passed a stringent series of tests demonstrating that it is invulnerable to impact, puncture, fire, and submersion. These tests are designed to simulate accident conditions greater than any the containers would experience in an actual accident. The same container, in sequence, must undergo: (1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface; (2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter; (3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container; and (4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours. Separately, containers are submerged under 50 feet of water for eight hours.
In the 1970s and 1980s, engineers at Sandia National Laboratories subjected used containers to actual accidents to determine what would happen under these conditions. Among other accidents, (1) a flatbed tractor-trailer carrying a container was run into a 700-ton concrete wall banked with 1,700 tons of dirt at 80 miles per hour, (2) a container on a tractor-trailer was broadsided by a 120-ton train locomotive traveling at 80 miles per hour, and (3) a container was dropped 2,000 feet onto soil as hard as concrete, traveling 235 miles per hour at impact. In each of these cases, the containers survived intact and would not have released their contents.
DOE has carefully studied possible accident scenarios that could result in a release of radiation. The risk of a "worst case" accident occurring is 2.8 in 10 million per year over the 24 years of planned shipment. The probability of every shipment of spent nuclear material arriving at Yucca Mountain safely, without a "worst case" accident, is 99.999328%.
Spent nuclear material may be shipped only along approved transportation routes. Shippers submit proposed routes to the NRC for approval before shipment. The NRC confirms that the route conforms to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, which require the most direct interstate route and avoiding large cities when a bypass or beltway is available. NRC officials drive the route ahead of time, if it has not been previously approved or has not been used in the past few years. NRC officials check law enforcement and emergency response capabilities and secure facilities for emergency stops. DOT regulations also require that the shipper notify the governor of each state on the route seven days before the trip.
Specialized trucking companies handle spent nuclear material shipments in the United States. These experienced, specially licensed companies haul all kinds of hazardous material more than 50 million miles annually. Vehicles are state-of-the-art, equipped with computers that provide an instantaneous update on the truck's location and convey messages between driver and dispatcher through a satellite communications network. Drivers receive extensive training and must be certified.
DOT and NRC establish emergency preparedness requirements for radioactive materials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and DOE provide emergency response training for state and local law enforcement officials, fire fighters, and rescue squads, covering preparedness planning and accident handling. DOE radiological assistance teams provide expertise and equipment to every region of the country. Under a voluntary mutual assistance agreement, utilities respond to incidents in their area until emergency personnel from the shipper and shipping utility arrive.
Spent nuclear material has been, and continues to be, safely transported. The fear-mongering of Yucca Mountain opponents aside, the facts demonstrate that transportation poses a negligible risk, less than the risk of leaving spent nuclear material in temporary on-site storage.
2. The Baltimore Tunnel Fire Scenario
Opponents of Yucca Mountain have latched on to the Baltimore Tunnel Fire as a scenario in which the shipping casks could fail. This is more irresponsible fear mongering.
The Baltimore Tunnel Fire was an incident on July 18, 2001 in which a train derailed in the Howard Street rail tunnel near downtown Baltimore. A tanker car of tripropylene was punctured and caught fire. The fire burned for at least 12 hours, and there has been much speculation about the heat of the fire.
Under the cask certification procedures, a cask used to transport spent nuclear material must be able to withstand a fully engulfing fire at an average temperature of 1475° F for 30 minutes. A fully engulfing fire, such as that in the Baltimore Tunnel Fire could not occur in the transportation of spent nuclear material. In order to be totally engulfed, the cask would need to be situated directly above an open pool of flammable chemicals, most likely from an adjacent tanker car. Current federal regulations, however, require a cask to be separated from any other cargo-carrying cars by an empty buffer car, placing any flammable chemicals at least 50-90 feet away from the cask. Furthermore, industry and government practice in recent years has exceeded the regulatory minimum; casks have been shipped on exclusive-use trains, that is, trains carrying no other cargo.
In response to the Baltimore Tunnel Fire, NRC scientists have conducted extensive tests on the fire resistance of shipping casks. These scientists concluded that the shipping casks could be exposed to a fully engulfing flame for 7 to 8 hours without compromising the integrity of the casks.
The intensity of the Baltimore Tunnel Fire was due in large part to the delayed response, as the train crew did not immediately recognize the severity of the derailment and the fire department did not respond for more than an hour after the train derailed. In contrast, all trains carrying high-level radioactive waste are accompanied by escorts and are monitored by federal and state officials using a state-of-the-art satellite tracking system. Within seconds, officials at the scene and in the remote communications command center would recognize any unusual activity and would be able to respond immediately with an appropriate response.
The Baltimore Tunnel Fire scenario is yet another of the unrealistic, implausible scenarios opponents of Yucca Mountain have used as a scare tactics. A fire similar to that in the Baltimore Tunnel Fire would not breach a shipping cask.
3. The Yucca Mountain Repository is a Safe and Scientifically Suitable Site
As a nation, we have an opportunity to ensure the safe, secure disposal of spent nuclear material. We can continue to leave spent nuclear material scattered across the country in temporary storage facilities, often located near large population centers or we can designate a repository at Yucca Mountain, a remote location.
In the last twenty years, hundreds of in-depth studies have been made of Yucca Mountain. These studies demonstrate that Yucca Mountain is a suitable site. Among its attributes are its remote location, arid climate, multiple natural barriers, great depth to the water table, and isolated hydrologic basin. Yucca Mountain is more than 90 miles from the nearest population center, making it one of the few nuclear facilities located in a truly remote setting. Yucca Mountain has an arid climate, with precipitation averaging only 7.5 inches per year. In order to reach the tunnels where the waste casks would be stored, the water would have to travel through dense rock. The water table at Yucca Mountain is approximately 1,600 to 2,600 feet below the surface of the mountain. Even if some leakage were to occur, a remote possibility, Yucca Mountain is within an isolated hydrologic basin, which does not flow into any rivers and is not connected to the groundwater serving Las Vegas or any other major city.
Opponents of Yucca Mountain point to some hypothetical risks to justify their objections. Finding a perfect site is not the task ahead, however. There is no such place. The choice is between a repository at Yucca Mountain and continued reliance on temporary on-site storage facilities, not intended and not designed for permanent use. Yucca Mountain would be intended for long-term disposal from the start, and is being designed with thousands of years of safe, secure disposal in mind.
4. The Yucca Mountain Repository is Necessary for National Security and Homeland Defense
Yucca Mountain is important for our national defense. Storage of spent nuclear material at Yucca Mountain will allow continued operation of our nuclear naval fleet and a safe storage spot for surplus weapons-grade plutonium.
Forty percent of the U.S. Navy's principal combat vessels are powered by nuclear fuel. Nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers have played a major role in every significant U.S. military action for the past 40 years. Our military might depends on the continued use of nuclear fuel to power our ships at sea. Spent nuclear material from the naval fleet is stored temporarily in Idaho, but a permanent repository is needed.
With the end of the Cold War, our nation is faced with disposing of surplus weapons-grade plutonium no longer useable for weapons production. No temporary site can provide the security and safety of a long-term repository. Yucca Mountain is in a remote location; the repository would be 1,000 feet beneath a mountain; access to the site would be restricted because it is federal land; airspace is restricted above the site; and the site is located near Nellis Air Force Range. In contrast, the 131 temporary commercial, research, and military storage facilities in 39 states are above ground, near major metropolitan centers, and designed more for convenience than maximum security.
Yucca Mountain will provide a repository for spent nuclear material from our naval fleet, a secure place to store weapons-grade material, and a dramatic improvement in safety and security over the temporary storage facilities around the country.
5. Yucca Mountain Is Necessary for the Long-Term Protection of OUr Environment
Without Yucca Mountain, the nuclear power industry will be imperiled and we will need to increase use of fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is an emissions-free energy source because it does not burn anything to produce electricity. Nuclear power plants produce no gases such as nitrogen oxide or sulfur dioxide that could threaten our atmosphere by causing ground-level ozone formation, smog, and acid rain. Nuclear energy produces neither carbon dioxide nor other greenhouse gases suspected to cause global warming. Between 1960 and 2000, nuclear power offset more than 3.1 billion metric tons of carbon emissions that would have been generated by using fossil fuel. A typical nuclear power plant operating at 90% capacity displaces carbon emissions by more than 2 million metric tons per year if it replaced a coal-fired plant, and more than 1.6 million metric tons per year if it replaced a petroleum fired plant.
Clean nuclear power is part of a sensible energy future.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the recommendation of Yucca Mountain by the Secretary of Energy; we supported the acceptance of that recommendation by the President; and we now support a Congressional resolution of repository siting approval for Yucca Mountain.
Spent nuclear material can be safely transported to Yucca Mountain. Selection of Yucca Mountain is essential to the defense of our country and to the production of clean, emissions-free energy. Yucca Mountain is a safe, secure, and suitable site. We urge you to approve the Yucca Mountain site soon; it is time we accept our responsibility to permanently and safely dispose of the nation's spent nuclear material.
Thank you again for the opportunity to present our views.