02 March 2012
In cargo transport parlance, HazMat refers to dangerous materials which may be "solids, liquids or gases that can harm people, other living organisms, property, or the environment .... Dangerous goods include materials that are radioactive, flammable, explosive, corrosive, oxidizing, asphyxiating, biohazardous, toxic, pathogenic, or allergenic."
In driving on public highways, most of us have noticed color-coded diamond-shaped warning signs on the rear or sides of trucks hauling explosives, flammable gases or liquids, corrosives or biohazardous cargo. Few of us have seen the warning signs for radioactive material. This is because such shipments are transported covertly, in special truck remarkable only by their license plates ~ 'U.S. Government'. Nuclear Weapons On A Highway Near You reports that the contents may be nuclear warheads, radioactive waste on its way to disposal, or fuel for US Navy nuclear-powered ships and submarines .
These particular nondescript vehicles make use of the Interstate Highway System, as well as less heavily-traveled highways. They may pass through major metro areas like Atlanta, Denver, or Los Angeles. Their transit is secret, and heavily guarded. The vehicles themselves are armed and armored, and are driven by armed federal agents with redundant communications systems and (sometimes) an accompanying vehicle operating electronic countermeasures.
Sounds pretty safe, right? But Murphy's Law applies. Any hazardous material in transport is subject to an accidental spill or an intentional attack. It's freaky enough to think about an overturned semi spilling oil or corrosive materials all over the landscape. But radioactive material? Can you say 'Fukushima Daiichi'?
Take a look at the map below (click to enlarge), which depicts public highways frequented by these black ops transports. When I saw it, I was thunderstruck. My entire family and many of my friends live within a few miles, and sometimes a few hundred yards, of nuclear transport routes, and don't even know it. This is my second major problem with nuclear transport ~ secrecy. I don't want to know when a shipment is traversing near me ~ I have no interest in interfering with these deadly vehicles. But I do feel that people have the right to know they exist, and the right to veto the passage of radioactive (or any hazardous) material through their communities.
Part of me understands the reasons for secrecy ~ in addition to wanting to minimize the possibility of hijack or intentional detonation, there is also an attitude of 'what they don't know won't hurt them' with regard to public knowledge. This is not acceptable. There is more at work than Murphy's Law. There is also the Office of Secure Transportation's less-than-stellar record in recent years among its drivers ~ "spills, problems with drinking on the job, weapons violations, and even criminal activity". Further, a Harvard professor who advises the government on keeping nuclear weapons secure agrees that materials in transit pose greater risks. "A transport is inherently harder to defend against a violent, guns-blazing enemy attack than a fixed site is."
So what's the solution? Weaning ourselves from reliance on nuclear power, for starters, so that transport of nuclear waste becomes a non-issue. Ridding the world of nuclear weapons too, though that won't happen in our lifetimes, if ever. I don't have all the answers. I do know that the thought of a nondescript truck carrying nuclear warheads, barreling along on the Interstate which runs along the western edge of my city gives me the creeps.
Speaking of hazardous materials, the Keystone XL Pipeline has been in the news lately. The controversial oil pipeline proposes to carry oil from Alberta, Canada into the U.S., to destinations ranging from refineries in Illinois, an oil distribution hub in Oklahoma, and to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast. Landowners along the proposed route are up in arms, with good reason. The risk of an oil spill is unavoidable ~ witness the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which has been 'damaged due to sabotage, human error, maintenance failures, and natural disasters.' Debate has raged over environmental issues, geopolitical issues, and economic issues. For a well-reasoned look at the pros and cons of Keystone, check out part one (Ranchers' Land Becomes Ground Zero In Energy Fight) and part two (What Happens If the Keystone XL Pipeline Isn't Built?) of an NPR discussion ~ each part includes both text and a link to listen to the show. It is a thorny and polarizing topic.