Feds Won't Test Nuclear Waste Casks

Feds Won't Test Nuclear Waste Casks

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A federal agency is lacking the funds to test casks that will be used to transport nuclear waste across the country to the underground repository planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

But even without that testing, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the casks for transporting 3,000 tons of waste yearly past more than 11 million people in 45 states -- including Utah -- to the repository 90 miles north of Las Vegas.

The NRC, however, won't test casks to demonstrate their ability to survive severe real-world accidents, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Sunday. The agency, instead, is relying on computer analyses and scale modeling.

One in question is the cask model destined to hold waste at a temporary storage facility in Utah.

Critics contend the computer simulations are inadequate.

"The NRC has adopted as fact the fictional notion there are no real-world accidents that could cause casks to fail," said Bob Halstead, a consultant to Nevada on Yucca Mountain transportation issues.

NRC senior transportation adviser Earl Easton says the agency doesn't have the money to do real-world testing.

"We're trying to scrape together the funds," Easton said.

The states of Utah and Nevada are demanding full testing of the casks.

NRC regulations require casks to pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions: a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, followed by a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter.

Then, casks would be subjected to a 1,475-degree Fahrenheit fire for 30 minutes before being submersed in 3 feet of water for eight hours. The sequence is supposed to mimic a rail or truck crash.

The casks are protected by "impact limiters," which are caps on both ends that make the containers resemble barbells and cover vulnerable seals and bolts.

The NRC has tested full-scale impact limiters by dropping them onto unyielding surfaces. But Halstead said the most dangerous impact wouldn't be to the limiters.

"It's a sideways truck jackknifing so the bridge abutment hits the cask in the body, bypassing the limiter, causing it to twist and force the lid to pop open, like Popeye's can of spinach," he said.

That could cause a tiny opening and allow lethal radioactive cesium and strontium to escape.

The casks, weighing between 25 and 125 tons, are made of multiple layers of steel and other materials. The NRC has certified 16 different designs, including a rail-transport model made by New Jersey-based Holtec International that Private Fuel Storage would use at its facility proposed for the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Holtec would be willing to sell the $3 million casks for any kind of testing NRC would want to do, said Joy Russell, a Holtec spokeswoman.

Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of eight utilities, is planning to send 40,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel to an open-air storage site in Skull Valley.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is expected to decide early next year whether Skull Valley can safely keep nuclear fuel. The board in March 2003 stalled construction by ruling the chances of a fighter jet from Hill Air Force Base crashing into the storage pad makes the project too risky. It has taken arguments for and against that decision and is weighing other aspects of the project.

As planned, the storage pad would hold up to 4,000 casks filled with depleted nuclear fuel -- about 10 million rods -- across 100 acres of the Skull Valley. The waste would be shipped over rail lines, mostly from reactors east of the Mississippi. Utah has no nuclear power plants.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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