Special Report: Trucking uranium through the mountains, part 2

Opponents trying to stop shipments of radioactive waste through the mountains say a single accident could cause a nuclear catastrophe. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) - Opponents trying to stop shipments of radioactive waste through the mountains say a single accident could cause a nuclear catastrophe.

RELATED | Part 1: Opponents say "mobile Chernobyl" threatens North Carolina mountains

But News 13's Investigative team has learned local emergency responders have very little information about what some say has the potential to be a "mobile Chernobyl."

The Department of Energy is quietly planning to use North Carolina highways to transport a highly radioactive liquid uranium -- a first according to opponents.

"As far as we know, it's never been shipped in world history," according to Kevin Kamps, of Beyond Nuclear.

His group is part of a lawsuit trying to stop the shipments. The U.S. government wants to move the waste from the Chalk River Nuclear Facility in Ontario, Canada to the Savannah River Nuclear Site in South Carolina.

Kamps says, until now, this type of uranium has only been shipped as a solid and is extremely dangerous.

"If you're exposed to it at a short distance, with no radiation shielding, it can actually kill you in a very short period of time. Or in a fiery crash or terrorist attack, this material could be disbursed over a very broad region," Kamps said.

Interstate 26 is one potential route, where nearby residents haven't heard a word. But residents living near the potential route aren't the only ones left in the dark.

"We've heard nothing about alternative routes or even main routes or anything at all," according to Jerry Vehaun, Buncombe County's Emergency Services Director.

He said his people train for hazardous materials accidents, including radioactive material. But they've never been trained to handle liquid uranium.

"As far as what we've been trained on to respond to, everything in the past has not been in liquid form. It's been in solid form," Vehaun said.

He says the hazards from liquid radioactive waste could be much more difficult to contain.

"There could be more exposure from the liquid form depending on did it get into the water supply, did it contaminate something else," Vehaun explained.

North Carolina's Department of Public Safety said it's aware of the security risks. But that information is sensitive and cannot be made public. The highway patrol says it has members trained for the appropriate response.

The Savannah River Site says the Department of Energy and regulators only allow licensed, certified and tested containers to make sure "the material will not be released from the container."

Still, Beyond Nuclear has environmental concerns.

"A single gallon of this liquid high-level radioactive waste could ruin a city's drinking water supply if it were to spill into the surface water or to ground water," Kamps said.

Kamps' group is now trying to force the Department of Energy (DOE) into conducting an Environmental Impact Statement and consider alternatives, such as "down-blending," or reducing the radioactivity levels or solidifying the liquid waste.

Kamps said the DOE will receive $60 million for accepting the nuclear material which was produced in the U.S.

"It's all about the money. It's all about the Department of Energy's agenda to keep reprocessing alive," he said.

Kamps said the government is willing to accept the risky shipments to protect jobs at the Savannah River Site by keeping the nuclear reprocessing facility up and running.

"It's radioactive Russian roulette on the highways. The Department of Energy is, unfortunately, willing to take those risks with people's money and people's lives," Kamps said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says over the past 40 years, thousands of shipments of spent nuclear fuel has been transported in the U.S. without any major problems. It has strict guidelines truckers must obey, including following the approved highway routes, making arrangements with local law enforcement agencies while en route, using armed escorts in heavily populated areas and they must make sure the cargo is protected against radio-logical sabotage.

The shipments, about 150 in all, are now on hold with the case now in court. News 13 will let you know what the court decides as soon we find out.

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