Synthesis/Regeneration 9   (Winter 1996)

Citizens Spotlight Nuke Waste Imports

Hot Stuff and Nonsense

by Lou Zeller, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Nuclear Campaigner

To T.J. Brown, Cape Fear Lookout (sidebar)

Day 1: The Nuclear Waste Ship

Midnight, October 18, 1995. We are camped out at the mouth of the Cape Fear River on the coast of North Carolina. Claude Ward, T.J. Brown and I await the arrival of a ship shrouded in secrecy. The French-flagged freighter Bouguenais embarked on its journey weeks ago, according to intelligence from European activists. The 4500 ton freighter carries a cargo of 99 irradiated fuel rods (designated "high level nuclear waste" by the US government) containing 10.63 kg of U-235 from research reactors in Switzerland and Greece and an unknown amount of plutonium and glassified radwastes. Its destination is the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point (MOTSU in military shorthand). The government's concealment of this transport of bomb-grade nuclear materials would shield the shipment from public view.

Our telescope is perched on a lookout tower on Fort Fisher, a Civil War fortress which once provided protection for blockade runners. Claude's van is equipped with a cellular phone. Our mission tonight is not to blockade but to provide an alert to the people of North and South Carolina. From Sunny Point, the highly radioactive fuel rods will be transferred from the ship to railroad cars for overland transit to the Savannah River Site. Our peaceful rebellion would end the international traffic in nuclear materials by revealing it to the people most at risk, residents of the towns and countryside along the transport route.

Two Faces of Nonproliferation

The importation of 24,000 irradiated fuel rods containing over 19 metric tonnes of enriched uranium from reactors around the globe during the next 15 years is an unhealthy, unwise, and unnecessary program of the US Departments of Energy and State and the international nuclear industry. The government says this policy will "reduce the potential for the proliferation of nuclear weapons." (1)

Since the 1950's, nations which cooperated with the "Atoms for Peace" program have been afforded assistance in the "peaceful" uses of nuclear energy, most often with reactor technology and enriched uranium fuel. Earlier designs required highly enriched uranium (HEU) to run research reactors. Current nonproliferation policy would convert these reactors to low enriched uranium (LEU). American companies stand to gain from the refueling contracts. General Electric's nearby Castle Hayne plant manufactures nuclear fuel rods. Enrichment increases the fraction of the fissionable isotope U235 in uranium ore from below 1% to about 5% for LEU and to 20% or more for HEU. Nuclear weapons require enrichment above 90%. In exchange for the returned HEU, the US government promotes conversion to LEU for the refueling of foreign reactors in 41 countries including Pakistan, Slovenia, and Iran.

Victor Gilinsky sums up the dilemma: "It is much easier to extract HEU from LEU than from natural uranium, and ... therefore, while LEU cannot itself be used as a nuclear explosive, it is not a material of negligible military significance." (2) As Amory and Hunter Lovins point out in a letter to the Wall Street Journal entitled "Nuclear Energy Provides Bomb Kits," "Most recent bomb programs were built on and hidden by the civilian programs that provide their materials, equipment, skills and innocent 'cover'-all paid for by countries subsidizing order-starved reactor vendors." (3) The nonproliferation policy is schizophrenic: under the guise of nonproliferation the government disseminates nuclear materials throughout the world. There is no way to separate good plutonium from bad plutonium; there is no way to ensure that nuclear reactors designed for peaceful intent will not be turned to military use.

There is no way to separate good plutonium from bad plutonium; there is no way to ensure that nuclear reactors designed for peaceful intent will not be turned to military use.

The Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel program provided the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and our allies with an opportunity to expose the myth of nuclear non-proliferation. The firestorm of publicity ignited by the Don't Nuke North/South Carolina Campaign made it impossible for elected officials charged with protection of public health to avoid the issue. Our methods are straightforward, our goal simple: get the word out. A 20-foot long mock nuclear waste transport cask, mounted on a trailer and towed behind a pickup truck was the center of attention at public meetings and press conferences. The traveling road show traced the nuclear transport route from MOTSU to Wilmington to Pembroke and into South Carolina.

The Governor of North Carolina responded with scores of Highway Patrolmen, the State Bureau of Investigation, and a helicopter to accompany the nuclear waste trains. The elaborate preparations for accidents underscores the real danger represented by international commerce of nuclear waste. Congressman Charlie Rose, from North Carolina's 7th District, recently stated his intent to lie down in front of the next shipment of nuclear waste. He won't be alone.

Exposing these strategically valuable materials to shipment, on the high seas and across isolated stretches of railroad, presents thousands of miles of opportunities for would-be saboteurs, thieves, and terrorists. We demonstrated by our all-night vigil that anyone so inclined can easily track these shipments. "This just goes to show that any terrorist who can afford a pair of binoculars and a plane ticket could know their every move, "said Janet M. Hoyle, BREDL's Executive Director. A spokesman for the DOE labeled our actions a "needless breach of security." (4) But the publicity generated by our campaign does not make sabotage more likely. On the contrary, the increased surveillance and precautions taken by state officials is a direct result of the high media profile.

The United States has no permanent place to isolate these highly radioactive fuel rods. Temporary storage at DOE sites in Savannah River, Oak Ridge Reservation, Hanford Site, Nevada Test Site, and Idaho National Engineering Laboratory is a stopgap. There is no disposal site at the end of the rail line. The Environmental Assessment for the foreign wastes prepared by DOE in 1994 states that the Savannah River Site's receiving basin for the foreign wastes "show no visible signs of corrosion." (5) But in July 1995 a report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board inspection team noted that, "significant corrosion of the spent fuel was contaminating the facility, generating significant waste, and contributing to personnel exposure." (6)

The exposure of people living close to the rail lines and highways to ionizing radiation is easily overlooked. Cancers, leukemias, and immune suppression may be delayed for years or decades. Dr. Carl Rupert, Research Director for the NC Clean Water Fund, estimates the population dose from the expected total of 837 trans-ocean shipments to be 7,885 person-rem, which could result in twenty cancer fatalities from ocean transport alone. (7)

Day 2: The Nuclear Waste Train

3 pm, October 19. T.J. and I caravan with the mock nuclear waste cask to Pembroke where the train turns south. We find mostly Native American residents who live a stone's throw from the CSX tracks watching the activity at the rail junction. Small homes and housing projects are close to the tracks here. Many people are unable to afford automobiles and telephones. Evacuation would be difficult or impossible. Pembroke is not the easiest or safest place to turn a train; the locomotives must "cut a Y" to negotiate the 90 degree left turn. Further on, in another Congressman's district, the normal route would allow the freight to turn quickly at a major rail yard. The people of Pembroke believe that the nuclear waste train endangers their community. They don't believe DOE spokesman who claim, on the one hand, that these materials are too dangerous to be left in storage overseas but that, on the other hand, there is no cause for concern for North & South Carolina residents.

Our rights in a free society are threatened by the laws deemed necessary to protect these shipments. This nation cannot protect the nuclear fuel cycle from terrorism without becoming a police state. A private citizen standing on public property may view an incoming ship and spread the word without jeopardy. However, if that ship carries nuclear weapons-grade materials the citizen becomes an outlaw. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League plans to continue this campaign for as long as it takes to bring an end to this deadly commerce.


1. Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel, March, 1995, 1-6.
2. Victor Gilinsky, Military Potential of Civilian Nuclear Power, 1970.
3. Wall Street Journal, May 18, 1995
4. Jim Guisti, DOE-Savannah River, Winson-Salem Journal, October 20, 1995.
5. DOE Environmental Assessment of Urgent Relief Acceptance of Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel 5-15, February, 1994.
6. Letter from SC Governor Beasley to Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, August 29, 1995.
7. Dr. Carl Rupert, Comments on Draft EIS Concerning Foreign Research Reactor Spent Fuel, July 18, 1995.

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