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Nuke Trainspotting Warns of Drive-by Dosing

by Michael Steinberg


A highly radioactive reactor (minus its fuel rods) from a shutdown nuclear plant in Massachusetts recently made its way by rail across North Carolina for burial in South Carolina.

State officials told of the shipment failed to notify the public. Media in the Triangle all but ignored this historic event, which may have been a dress rehearsal for what will happen repeatedly in NC if a proposed "low level" nuke dump is sited in Wake County.

Caravan of Conscience

On April 25 Debbie Katz and other members of the New England-based Citizens Awareness Network (CAN) assembled in front of the state legislature building in Raleigh to inform Tar Heel residents of the impending radioactive shipment. Accompanied by their children, CAN members, some dressed in radiation protection masks and suits, drove a mock radioactive waste cask around the building.

Katz, who lives four miles from the defunct Yankee Rowe nuclear plant, called its radioactive shipment "death's garbage can." She reported that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has found a 10-fold increase in Down's Syndrome, as well as elevated levels of breast cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma in her small rural community in the Deerfield Valley.

CAN attributes these diseases to radioactive releases from the Yankee Rowe plant, especially from its emissions of tritium (radioactive hydrogen) into the Deerfield River. Yankee Rowe, New England's first nuke, operated from 1962 until its owner, Yankee Atomic, decided to shut it down permanently rather than make expensive repairs of safety problems that CAN had brought to public attention.

Twenty-five nuclear plants face early shut down," Katz said in Raleigh. "The floodgates of waste are opening, and the radioactive waste is coming south. We can't allow other communities to to suffer like we have. These are the nuclear wars of the '90s. They will determine whether there will be clean air, water and land for our children. These issues must be determined not by utilities and politicians, but by the American people."

Jim Warren of NC WARN noted that if the proposed Southeast Compact nuclear dump is sited in Wake County, this nuclear garbage will end up in our regional back yard.

And Lou Zeller of western North Carolina's Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) stressed that "1 in 10,000 will die from radioactive exposure during nuclear waste transportation." This is the number of deaths from such shipments allowed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Heavily shielded radwastes still give off radiation into the environment, so anyone getting close enough may get dosed.

"Our mission," Zeller concluded, "is to alert people who live along the tracks so they can get out of harm's way."

Who Knows Where Or When

Finding out when and where the reactor would pass through NC was no easy task.

I started by calling the Highway Patrol's office of Hazardous Materials in Raleigh. "We're not able to talk about that," a non-spokesperson told me.

On April 25 I called the head transporter for CSX rail company in Jacksonville, FL. I knew from past research that CSX had brought rail shipments of high level radwaste in the form of used fuel rods from CP&L's Brunswick plants to Shearon Harris, and suspected it would be involved in the Yankee Rowe one. The dispatcher took my name and number and said a public relations person would call me back, probably later that day. But no one ever did.

On April 29 I tried the NRC Region 11 office in Atlanta. Public affairs man Ken Clark said the shipment had left Yankee Rowe on the 28th. He didn't know its exact route, but said "it would have to have been approved by the NRC."

I had already been informed by BREDL that Debbie Katz had seen the train leaving on the evening of Tuesday, the 29th.

On April 30, I called Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts. They took my name and number too. The next morning I was contacted by Kelly Smith, their PR person on the train. Smith told me the reactor had been trucked 6 1/2 miles from Yankee Rowe to a railroad spur, where it had loaded on its specially designed rail car. Smith said the train pulled out at about 7:30 PM on the 29th, confirming Katz's claim.

CAN trainspotters had reported that the train had passed from Massachusetts in upstate New York on April 30, travelling at 10-20 mph, and by late afternoon on May 1 was approaching Binghampton, just north of Pennsylvania.

Smith told me the train indeed was approaching Binghampton. She said the reactor shipment was classified as low level radioactive waste and that Yankee Atomic

considered it no different than the 180 other such shipments it had trucked south since the plant's '91 shutdown. Smith said the train included an entire PR car to demonstrate to the public that it was safe. The company's motto for Yankee Rowe in fact is "Safe From Start To Finish." (The 180 shipments entailed a total of 140,000 curies of radioactive material trucked on the highways, according to Katz).

Smith reported that the PR car was added at the end of the seven-car train in response to allegations by CAN that the reactor shipment was a threat to the public. She called CAN "a small local antinuclear group."

Smith also said that the Yankee Rowe reactor was the first one from the East Coast to be shipped to the nuke dump in Barnwell, SC.

Smith told me the 165 ton reactor vessel, with 8" thick steel walls, had been injected with 80 tons of concrete, encased in another 3" thick steel vessel, and then lashed down on the train with 20 tons of wire. Thus the entire "package", as she called it, weighed 365 tons. Its extreme weight necessitated its transportation by rail.

Despite all this encasement, some radiation could still escape the package. Exactly how much, and how threatening this might be to the public, was the center of controversy for the rest of the trip.

Smith said the reactor contained somewhat over 3000 curies of radiation, while CAN contended it was nearer to 5000.

As for the train route, Smith told me it would be heading through Harrisburg, PA, then on to Hagerstown in western Maryland, and from there to Spartanburg, SC. At each of the latter stops a different train company would take over the shipment. Smith said she was uncertain of its route or timetable to pass through NC.

Hot Spots Down South

On May 2 the Yankee Rowe reactor crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Maryland. So I learned when I contacted Smith with the toll-free satellite phone number she'd given me. She told me the train would come into NC from Danville, VA, then pass through Winston-Salem and Charlotte.

She cautioned that the satellite number she'd given me was for media only. She was concerned that the Clean Water Fund in Raleigh had called her. I told her, truthfully, that I hadn't given out the number to them. I had given it to BREDL, before Smith had informed me of this prohibition. BREDL's Janet Zeller later told me that Smith hung up on citizens who called with concerns about the shipment.

Smith told me that technical people on the train with her, using sophisticated equipment (not generally available to the public), had measured the reactors radioactive emissions at 2-3 millirems (mr)/hr at 6 feet, half of what the NRC allowed. "We're well below regulation," Smith said.

Later that day Katz informed me that there had been an accident on the road between the railroad spur and Yankee Rowe. The equipment used to carry the reactor from the plant to the spur had been taken apart and put on a flat bed truck. The accident had happened on the way back to the plant, Katz said. She had heard that the driver had been injured, and had had difficulty breathing.

The accident reportedly happened at about 8 pm on April 30, and workers had been cleaning up the accident scene until 2:30 the next morning, she further informed me. Katz wondered if there had been any radiation contamination caused by the accident.

When I asked Smith about this the next day, she said the accident happened after the driver lost his air brakes after leaving the plant on the way back to Memphis, TN, and that anything leaving the plant was checked to make sure it wasn't radioactive. She reported that the driver had been taken to the hospital and released.

"But they've got their accident," she added sardonically, referring to CAN. (Causing me to ask myself, "Whose accident?") And leading me to worry about what disaster might have occurred on the road if air brakes had failed while carrying the reactor.

Smith said the train was heading for Roanoke. BREDL reported that it pulled into town that Friday at 9:30 PM. Trainspotters there said they had to warn people away after it rolled in and then stopped in the middle of a crowded area where a street festival was going on.

On Saturday, May 3, Smith told me the train would go through Greensboro, not Winston-Salem, after entering NC. A little before 6 PM on Sunday she called to inform me the train was about to cross the state line. Smith said that, as a courtesy, Yankee Atomic notified the offices of the governor and emergency services, even though not required to for shipments of low-level radwaste. But neither the utility nor any state official told people along the route.

The reactor passed through Greensboro later Sunday evening. From 30 feet away Lou Zeller of BREDL measured radiation coming out of the reactor at levels 12 to 13 times above background.

On Monday the reactor rolled through the state's largest city, Charlotte. There Lou Zeller got within 10 feet of it, measuring radiation at what he said was 125 times above background.

On Tuesday, May 6, I asked Smith about Zeller's readings as the train moved out of Spartanburg towards Columbia, SC. She said that her people had measured no radiation above background beyond nine feet from the reactor.

"If Mr. Zeller is concerned about this, he should stay more than nine feet away," she fumed, ignoring the fact that he had.

Smith asserted that she and all others on the train were wearing dosimeters, self-reading radiation measurement devices, and that all their readings were zero.

The train and Yankee Rowe's reactor package arrived at Barnwell late in the afternoon of Wednesday, May 7. A few hours before its arrival I asked Smith if her dosimeter was still reading zero. She assured me it was.

But so, in my mind, was the credibility of Yankee Atomic and of all the public officials who placed thousands of unwarned people in the nuclear "package's" path at risk.

And since the reactor will remain radioactive for thousands of years, so too will this risk be passed on to many thousands as yet unborn. Surely they will they curse their ancestors, unless they were activists like Debbie Katz.


Michael Steinberg is a Durham-based investigative reporter. Contact BREDL at 910-982-2691 or NC WARN at 490-0747.


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