Train Wreck Stirs Fear Over Nuclear Freight
By Matthew Mosk
For Baltimore, it was a colossal disaster.
But for a band of lawmakers and anti-nuclear activists, the freakish train derailment in a tunnel beneath Maryland's most populous city has become a potent symbol for their message, at a pivotal moment in the debate about nuclear power.
"The Baltimore accident is a poster for the dangers of transporting nuclear waste," said U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has led the fight in Congress to prevent a nuclear waste dump from opening in his home state and receiving thousands of train-loads of radioactive trash from power plants across the country.
Imagine, Reid and others say, if the CSX freight train that was engulfed in a blistering fire near Camden Yards had been carrying radioactive cargo.
The notion is not entirely far-fetched. Preliminary routes suggested by the Department of Energy show the same rails under downtown Baltimore could one day carry flat cars loaded with spent radioactive fuel from the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland.
And when fire from the July 18 wreck burned for days, generating searing heat, conditions in the Baltimore tunnel may at times have exceeded the severity of test fires set to gauge the strength of the 200-ton steel casks the government approved for transporting nuclear waste.
Although some activists call the Baltimore wreck a warning shot, others in Congress and in the nuclear power industry see only a crass attempt to capitalize on a calamity.
"The fire in Baltimore shouldn't be used as a scare tactic in the debate," Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), a leading backer of plans to open the Nevada nuclear waste site, said in a prepared statement.
"Efforts to exploit situations like the Baltimore fire point up the fact that it's a political debate, not a technical one," said Steve Unglesbee, a spokesman for the Constellation Energy Group, which runs the Calvert Cliffs plant.
In 3,000 nuclear fuel shipments since 1964, he said, there has never been a serious accident. And, he said, tests have proved that the specialized rail cars used in transporting nuclear materials are as solid as bank vaults.
Promotional videos released by the industry show images of rail cars slamming at 100 mph into solid concrete walls, dropping from three stories to the hard earth and being engulfed in flames accelerated by jet fuel.
But not everyone is convinced the transport casks are impervious.
Marvin Resnikoff, a physicist from the New York consulting firm Radioactive Waste Management Associates who has studied the casks, said the industry "should not dismiss a leak as impossible. It would have to be a severe accident, but we know that on occasion, those do happen."
The threat of fire, in particular, caught the attention of activists who had been reading newspaper accounts of the Baltimore crash. The transport casks are built to withstand a fire of 1,475 degrees for 30 minutes. The Baltimore fire -- fueled by a tanker loaded with 12,000 gallons of flammable liquid -- burned for days at temperatures that at times approached 1,500 degrees.
"It scared me even more than I already was," said Kevin Kamps, a Prince George's man who has been touring the country trying to raise awareness of the potential dangers of carrying nuclear cargo onto the nation's highways and rail lines.
Given recent efforts by the Bush administration to generate interest in nuclear energy and progress by the industry in gaining approval to open the national waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., Kamps agreed that the timing of the Baltimore wreck has proved oddly fortuitous.
On recent stops in Kansas City, Mo., and Lincoln, Neb., the 31-year-old activist, with his "No Nukes" lapel button, said he was able to capitalize on reports of the Baltimore wreck and fold them into his standard stump speech.
"Suddenly, this was on the minds of people who weren't already thinking about the integrity of the containers," Kamps said. "It put the issue in focus."
In Washington, the wreck was frightening enough to prompt legislation ordering a federal study of the risks associated with the transportation of hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials throughout the country. It passed the Senate 96-0.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said he would welcome such a study. In the hours immediately after the wreck, the dazed mayor told reporters he thought he'd been sucked into the plot of a Hollywood adventure movie. The scenario playing out seemed terribly unlikely -- the train wreck, the leaking toxic chemicals, the stubborn fire, all stewing together beneath crowded downtown streets and near a half-full baseball stadium.
"In this day and age, with the amount of hazardous materials that go right by Baltimore, right through Baltimore and right under Baltimore, I think it's high time we look at it," O'Malley said.
For their part, CSX officials have said that kind of rare, spectacular accident would be even less likely involving a train carrying nuclear waste.
Although the locomotive in the July 18 derailment was towing nine separate tanks of hazardous chemicals, a train with nuclear waste would not carry any other dangerous cargo -- and certainly nothing flammable, said Robert Gould, a company spokesman.
Department of Energy spokesman Joseph H. Davis noted that any route would be thoroughly checked by federal inspectors before a train set out with a radioactive load.
"If there's any question about safety, we don't move," he said.
But Reid and others remain convinced that any shipment of nuclear material raises questions about safety. "At this stage there isn't any mode of transportation I'm comfortable using for this purpose," the senator said.
Staff writer Raymond McCaffrey contributed to this report.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company