Originally created 09/23/96

Nuclear payload arrives



Surrounded by heavy security, a train carrying 280 spent nuclear fuel rods from Europe and South America rolled into Savannah River Site on Sunday evening.

The radioactive waste from Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Chile and Colombia arrived by boat to the Charleston Naval Weapons Station early Sunday and was loaded onto a CSX train for the 135-mile trip to SRS.

It was the first of up to 300 shipments to follow over the next 13 years.

"Everything went as planned," a pleased Department of Energy spokesman Jim Giusti said after the cargo arrived at the nuclear weapons plant just after 6 p.m. "We got the ships in and tied up and all the inspections done faster than we had originally projected. Everything went very smoothly."

It will take about two months to unload the fuel rods and place them in a water-filled basin at SRS. The 3-foot-long metal rods must be kept underwater so workers aren't exposed to radiation.

Emergency preparedness personnel in each county along the train route were notified of the shipment. Two state emergency officers also monitored the operation, said Joe Farmer, a spokesman for the South Carolina Emergency Preparedness Division.

Unlike during two previous transports of foreign spent nuclear fuel through North Carolina, there were no protesters around Sunday, Mr. Giusti said.

"There just hasn't been a lot of attention lately on this topic," he said.

As the shipments become routine, they will likely require less security, he added.

"I would anticipate that if everything goes as well as it's gone today, we could probably go to a lower level," Mr. Giusti said.

Worried that the highly enriched uranium contained in the spent fuel might be used by rogue nations to fabricate nuclear weapons, the federal government has decided to store 20 metric tons of the radioactive material in the United States.

The vast majority will come to South Carolina - something the state is not happy about.

After failing to stop two previous interim shipments, South Carolina returned to court this summer. A federal judge agreed to hear the state's concerns during a trial later this fall, but refused to bar Sunday's transport. The state maintains the waste can't be stored safely at SRS' aging water basins, and worries it might be left at the Aiken plant indefinitely. The Department of Energy says the waste will eventually be sent to an underground waste dump, but has not decided where.

SRS officials insist the fuel rods won't pose any risk, and point to improvements made to the storage basins in recent years.