Cal State Northridge sociology professor James David Ballard warned the U.S. Senate last week that not enough thought has been given to the risks associated with the U.S. Department of Energy’s proposal to ship nuclear waste to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
Ballard was asked by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, to testify before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s first hearing in years on nuclear waste shipping. The panel, which has jurisdiction over railroads and is chaired by Inouye, was examining the safety and security challenges relating to the transportation of nuclear waste, including the potential transportation of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository.
The problem, Ballard told the committee, is that risk assessments done so far by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) assumed “single-phase attack scenarios,” in which a single fuel shipping cask is attacked at one location by one group of attackers using one weapon. The basic analyses assume that the attack breaches the cask and releases a small fraction of the contents.
“None of the consequence assessments have taken into account the potential damages associated with the post-9/11 threat environment, such as hijackings, specialized truck bomb scenarios, and/or concealed weapons like IEDs (improvised roadside devices) which, coupled with inside assistance, diversionary attacks and/or suicide tactics, could potentially result in radiological consequences far greater than those previously estimated by the NRC or the DOE,” Ballard testified.
“Make no mistake,” he told the committee, “what we are talking about when discussing the transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste are potentially very dangerous cargos. They are a danger to the transportation infrastructure, to the public health and to the long-term economic viability of the location(s) where an accident and/or terrorist attack may transpire.”
Ballard urged the senators on the committee to listen carefully to what was said at last week’s hearing “and ask yourselves if it is designed to obscure the issues from lawmakers, the public and the many stakeholders.”
Ballard, coordinator of CSUN’s Intelligence Community Academic Center for Excellence, has spent the past 14 years studying issues associated with human-initiated events, such as terrorism and sabotage, that may affect efforts to transport spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes to Yucca Mountain.
Ballard said he was honored to have been invited to testify before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s hearing on nuclear waste shipping.
“Terrorism and other human-initiated events threaten many parts of society, none of greater concern than nuclear power and the potential for radiological contamination,” he said.
“There is a fundamental difference of opinion between critics of the Yucca Mountain project and the government agencies that regulate the transport effort,” he continued. “One side thinks risks exist and we have to deal with them in honest dialogue or society will react negatively to a radioactive contamination event. The other side talks in terms of the probability of an event creating conditions of contamination, thus nothing is at risk. One side worries about the health of communities, the impact on their lives and the long-term effects on their children. The other side debates if their ‘guesstimates’ are in line with probability theory.”
What the government agencies fail to understand, he said, “is that the issues are not necessarily engineering based, rather they are social-scientific based: How will people react to seeing their communities contaminated with radioactive materials of the most dangerous kind? Will they trust a spokesperson who assures them their chances of getting cancer are slight? Or will they panic, and if they do, how will this be handled?”
These are all questions Ballard said the senators must consider as they weighed the impact of approving plans to transport nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain.
For a copy of Ballard’s written testimony, visit the Web site