RAINIER, Ore. -- Entombed in concrete and 6-inch steel, the radioactive reactor of the largest U.S. nuclear power plant ever to be shut down was loaded onto a barge Friday for a 270-mile river journey right through the heart of Portland.
It's the first time a commercial reactor of this size -- and level of contamination -- will pass through a major American city, according to officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency overseeing the decommissioning of the Trojan Nuclear Plant.
Even the utility that owns the reactor, which is headed for burial 45 feet deep on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, considered the river journey risky, and environmentalists were worried.
"I'm not saying if the reactor falls off into the water, everybody would have to be evacuated from Portland, but it would not be good for the Columbia River to have a reactor vessel sitting in it," said Lloyd Marbet, who led three unsuccessful ballot initiatives to have the plant shut down. "The fact of the matter is that the interior of the vessel contains a very high level of radioactivity."
Moving the 1,000-ton reactor is contentious because environmentalists had urged the plant's owner, Portland General Electric, to mothball the entire site for at least 50 years and wait for the radioactive isotopes to cool down before dismantling the facility.
Instead, PGE opted to barge the reactor from its current site, 42 miles northwest of Portland on the banks of the Columbia River, to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Chugging along no faster than 12 mph, a tug was to take the barge past Portland by early Saturday and continue upstream until it reaches Benton, Wash., sometime Sunday. From there, two trucks creeping along at 5 mph will pull the vessel on a 320-wheel, 16-axle trailer to Hanford, 30 miles away.
Utility officials say barging the leakproof reactor is the safest way to decommission the plant, which for 16 years generated enough electricity to power all of Portland. It was closed in 1993, two decades earlier than planned, after a series of problems, including a faulty safety system that drew federal fines, the accidental release of radioactive gases and cracked steam tubes.
"I would characterize it as a risky move, but it's a lot safer than the traditional method of cutting the reactor into pieces and trucking it over the highway," PGE spokesman Craig Kreggarntson said.
In 1996, a train hauled away the reactor vessel of the Yankee Rowe nuclear plant in Massachusetts, but unlike Trojan, it weighed only 360 tons and was not transported through heavily populated areas.
Portland General Electric already has shipped off Trojan's contaminated steam generators in five trips to Hanford since 1995, and the Navy has long shipped old reactors from submarines and cruisers up the Columbia for burial at the site -- all without any problems.
The only difference is that the Trojan reactor contains 15 times as much radioactivity as those objects, according to state officials.
Kreggarntson said the vessel poses little risk to the workers handling it or residents living along the river, once it is encased in concrete. A person standing within six feet of the reactor for an hour would receive no more radiation than an airplane passenger would get from the sun during two cross-country flights, he said.
A potentially more dangerous problem remains at the Trojan site: hundreds of highly radioactive spent fuel rods. Since the federal government has yet to build a disposal site for such waste, PGE has no option but to encase the rods in canisters and leave them there.