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Special Report: Opponents say 'mobile Chernobyl' threatens North Carolina mountains

The mountains could soon face a threat from nuclear waste. The federal government has been quietly working on a plan to move radioactive liquid uranium from Canada to South Carolina on routes that could take it right through Asheville. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) - The mountains could soon face a threat from nuclear waste. The federal government has been quietly working on a plan to move radioactive liquid uranium from Canada to South Carolina on routes that could take it right through Asheville.

News 13's investigative team has been looking into the risk this could pose. Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have filed a lawsuit to try to stop it. They call the risk from these shipments the equivalent of a "mobile Chernobyl."

Interstate 26 is a highway filled with big rigs making shipments every day. But the thought of transporting highly enriched radioactive waste so close to populated neighborhoods gives some people the chills.

"It makes me a little nervous cause I have family," Heather Jystad said, who lives in Hunter's Trace.

She had no idea the federal government was planning to potentially ship nuclear waste right by her home.

"You know, we don't really know everything that can happen. It's not like we're hundreds of years into this. We're fairly new at this nuclear waste thing," Jystad said.

The nuclear material is being shipped to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It's a Department of Energy complex that manages nuclear waste. The proposed shipments, as many as 150 of highly radioactive liquid uranium, are apparently a first.

Opponents say we have never, ever moved this type of material before. They say shipping liquid uranium is nothing new, but this material is hundreds of times stronger and potentially lethal.

"There are liquid shipments, but they are not highly radioactive and the difference is whether it can kill you in a few minutes, a few hours or if it's going to take decades," according to Mary Olson with the Nuclear Information Resource Service or NIRS. She's part of the lawsuit trying to stop the shipments.

Olson says the proposed routes from a nuclear research facility in Ontario, Canada could bring it right through Asheville, posing an incredible risk.

"Some areas could become uninhabitable from a single shipment accident," Olson said.

Olson said the shipping containers have never been tested, and because the government has never prepared an environmental impact statement, there's no way to know how dangerous it might be.

Olson said the plan not only risks lives, it also threatens the area's economy by putting the environment in harm's way.

"What they are proposing now is completely new, never been done before and is creating a situation that could place our whole economy at risk," she said.

That economy is anchored by the French Broad River, a playground for paddlers, fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts. The proposed routes could pass right over the river.

But the World Nuclear Association says about 20-million containers of radioactive material are transported worldwide by road, rails and ships every year and not a single container of highly radioactive material has ever been breached or has leaked.

The Department of Energy responded to News 13's requests for an interview saying they could not comment because of the pending litigation.

Shipments that were slated to begin as early as last September are now on hold because of the lawsuit.

RELATED | Trucking uranium through the mountains, part 2

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