Nuke ammo transport worries county

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By: JACK MABB
07/20/2004

HUDSON-At any given time radioactive material in the form of depleted uranium from nuclear power plants and munitions may be traveling the rails and roadways of America.

And while local officials understand the need for security surrounding these shipments, a growing number of them also say the safety of local first responders, responding to a train or truck accident involving these shipments, must be considered.

Last week, Columbia County supervisors voiced their concerns on the subject following a request from the Ulster County Legislature.

“We need to protect our first responders at all cost. It isn’t fair that they have no clue what they are dealing with,” says Susan Zimet, a member of the Ulster County Legislature. She sponsored a resolution in her county that calls on the federal Department of Transportation not to renew DOT-E9649, a regulation that allows the Military Management Command to transport explosives and radioactive material with only an “explosive” placard affixed to the container.

In the event of an accident that released the material, first responders coming to the scene would have no knowledge of the potential radioactive danger.

The regulation expired June 30 of this year. And Ms. Zimet says the DOT has listened to those opposed to continuation of the regulation and has not yet renewed it.

In May, the Ulster County Legislature unanimously approved the resolution calling for the DOT to require identification of radioactive cargoes. The Columbia County Board of Supervisors adopted a similar resolution at its meeting last week.

While Columbia County seems far removed from weapons production and nuclear power plants, the threads that link this county with other vulnerable communities are the two CSX rail lines that pass through eight towns here.

Ms. Zimet says Ulster’s emergency management director tried to find out the routes and times the material is shipped but ran into a brick wall of silence.

She says federal officials were “not forthcoming on information of the route or manner the material was transported over.” Ms. Zimet says at one point some radioactive material was produced in the Albany suburb of Colonie, which leads here to believe “that material passed though our counties at some time.”

Opponents of the regulation describe DU as “extremely toxic material,” with the danger increased when it is shipped as part of munitions.

One group, Nukewatch, in Luck, Wis., says an accident with these weapons could have the effect of igniting what the federal government has described as “dirty bomb,” a device the government has said terrorist organizations might try to build and detonate.

County Fire Coordinator James Van Deusen says it is a good idea to mark the containers to give first responders a fighting chance. “If they get there and then discover what it is I think they will be out of luck,” he says. He adds that while firefighters are taught to check the scene for their own safety first, the drive to help may overwhelm that learned prudence.

“Know what you’re getting into-we teach it all the time. But in the heat of a call sometimes it’s how fast can you get there,” he says.

While train transport is relatively safe, the Department of Transportation reports that there are 2,000 derailments and 7,300 train accidents annually.

The Military Management Command has said that because of the risk of terrorism, a cask ruptured on purpose is essentially a dirty bomb, and the government needs to keep security on the shipments tight.

Ms. Zimet understands the argument, but she wonders why in lieu of a placard on the cars or trailer identifying radioactive materials local emergency management offices couldn’t be notified of nuclear materials transportation routes and times.

“I believe that they believe they need to keep this a secret, but that doesn’t mean we stop worrying about our first responders,”
she says.

Mr. Van Deusen agrees that prior notification could work well as long as that notice is well ahead of the transport.