The DOE will soon release a Preliminary Transportation Study describing the potential rail and highway routes in Nevada that could be used to transport high-level nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. The study is a preliminary scoping document for a repository Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that includes transportation.
Phil Gehner, a DOE contractor in charge of the transportation study, said its purpose is to determine and document the processes, timelines, and costs associated with developing a radioactive waste transportation system in Nevada. The study is partially based on previous data compiled in preliminary rail access studies but includes rail corridor costs estimates and changes from the earlier studies, including one new rail route, two modified rail routes, and a heavy haul option for highway transport.
Highway Issues: Heavy Haul Truck Option
The Preliminary Transportation Strategy Study identifies three routes for heavy haul transport: Caliente, Arden, and the Valley/Dike Siding route. The state of Nevada defines heavy haul trucks as those shipments that exceed 129,000 pounds, gross vehicle weight. The larger multi-purpose canister, loaded with spent fuel, would weigh 250,000 pounds, excluding the weight of the truck. In order to use heavy haul transport, DOE would construct intermodal transfer stations, to be transfer stations between rail transport and highway transport. At the intermodal transfer stations the spent fuel would be loaded from the trains onto the huge trucks, which are about 148 feet long, the same size as a triple semitrailer.
Bob Halstead, transportation specialist for the state of Nevada, said there are many concerns about use of heavy haul and intermodal transport.
"When you start putting thousands of heavy-haul trucks on the road, you've got problems," said Halstead. "There are steep grades on some of those routes and the trucks would be operating on roads used by lots of hazardous materials shippers."
Halstead said the state is concerned about the increased potential for worker exposure due to the handling of radioactive waste casks at the intermodal transfer stations, and risks of heavy haul truck shipments on public highways. In any scenario under which all shipments to Yucca Mountain used an intermodal facility, there would be heavy haul trucks on the roads virtually every day of the year for 30 years.
The Transportation Study identifies issues with the various highway routes, including frost and width restrictions. The Caliente route has frost restrictions about three months out of the year. Gehner, the DOE contractor, said the study considers the option of changing the length and axle loading of heavy haul trucks during frost restrictions. "We're considering what a rig would look like with additional axles, what the turning radius would be like. We're looking to get more information there."
The Sate of Nevada Department of Transportation said triple semitrailors are used regularly in Nevada. However, Sharon Powers, a permit agent in the overdimension permit section at the agency said she would be concerned about the increased traffic of heavy haul trucks in the state, especially around Pahrump, where growth has increased dramatically. "There has been so much progress and development out there, everyone thinks it's the boondocks, but we issue permits for heavy haul equipment all the time for construction materials they're hauling out there."
In addition, the Arden route on State Route 160 between Pahrump and Blue Diamond has width restrictions that under existing conditions would make the road about two feet too narrow for DOE trucks. Gehner said the road is being upgraded in the Spring Mountains area, and would probably be acceptable as a potential route in the near future.
Rail Corridor Issues
The Transportation Study recommends four rail routes for detailed evaluation, and gives cost estimates for each of the following: the Caliente, Carlin, Jean, and Valley Modified routes. The Jean and Valley Modified routes are updated versions of routes described in the preliminary rail access study of 1990.
Gehner said the potential rail routes could cost from $355 million to $1.4 billion. According to the study data, the Caliente route is the most expensive, costing $1,437,500. The Modified Valley route is least expensive, at $355,400,000. The Carlin route is predicted to cost $1.1 billion. Estimates were determined based on a previous study and were modified to include engineering, construction, and administrative costs. Costs associated with environmental mitigation or litigation were not included.
The study proposes two versions of the Carlin route, which would bisect Eureka County. DOE is now looking at an option to route the radioactive waste through the Smoky Valley as the route heads south from southwestern Eureka County.
Steve Campbell, Senior Associate with Planning Information Corporation which is a contractor for Eureka County, voiced concerns that environmental issues and land use considerations in the Monitor and Smoky Valleys are not addressed in the study. In addition, Campbell cited environmental concerns about the wetlands in the Palisades area at Pine Creek. "The option is to go 3-4 miles northeast and come through some heavy slope changes, that's pretty heavy terrain," he commented.
Halstead, the state's transportation expert thinks the focal point will be on the Modified Valley Route, proposed for Clark and Nye counties, due to its short length and ease of terrain. The route is described in Sen. Bennett Johnston's (D-La.) bill as a designated rail corridor.
Halstead said there are many concerns about the area: that it is a rapidly developing residential and commercial area; that it is currently used for recreational activities; that the whole area is subject to sever flooding; that the proposed route would traverse the Nellis and Quail Springs Wildlife Study Areas; that there are potential conflicts with Native American land use; and that the area is subject to military training overflights.
"I would be really surprised if there were no endangered species conflicts," said Halstead. "It is also possible that the risk of military overflights is an issue that cannot be resolved by DOE and the Air Force," he said.
Gehner said the Preliminary Transportation Study is the beginning of an information gathering phase, and that the DOE will be looking for data on a number of issues. He cited the Monitor and Smoky Valleys, and Beowawe and Palisades as areas where information is being collected related to the Carlin route.
"The DOE sees that there are obstacles regardless of the route. Caliente is a long distance, the same as Carlin. The Valley Modified route is a short distance, but it's close to a large and expanding population (Las Vegas). The Jean route would go through Pahrump, which is also an expanding population," said Gehner.