Originally created 08/18/99

Workers train for radioactive accident



AUSTELL, Ga. -- As the first line of defense, truck driver Mark Beene is well versed on how to handle an accident with his cargo of radioactive waste.

But Tuesday found Mr. Beene, a driver for the U.S. Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, sharing a classroom with a group of emergency-response workers from the Atlanta area.

"We're already trained on what to do in case of an accident," he said during a break at the South Cobb Government Center. "We have to go through this class to know what they're going to do."

Starting in February, officials at the DOE's Savannah River Site plan to ship the first of 28,000 barrels of radioactive waste from the former nuclear weapons plant near Aiken, along Interstate 20 through 17 Georgia counties on the way to the underground WIPP facility near Carlsbad, N.M.

The WIPP also will take what is known as "transuranic" waste -- clothes, gloves, tools and other debris exposed to radiation -- from nine other DOE sites, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Dade County in northwest Georgia lies along a separate route between Oak Ridge and Carlsbad.

Westinghouse Electric Co., which operates the WIPP for the Energy Department, has been conducting training sessions along Georgia's I-20 corridor since last fall, working west from the Augusta area.

Trainees from city and county fire departments, emergency medical service crews and law enforcement agencies have been learning how to protect themselves, the public and the environment from radiation exposure in case of an accident. They've been familiarizing themselves with the 55-gallon stainless steel drums that will be used to contain the waste and running through various accident scenarios with the help of a tabletop model.

George Lucas, WIPP coordinator for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said he's been impressed with the knowledge of hazardous materials displayed by the trainees.

"Even the smaller counties, which really don't deal with anything of a great magnitude, have done very well," he said. "I'm fairly comfortable that if there is an incident, they'll do well until more appropriate authorities arrive on the scene."

But the project's critics say WIPP is simply a catastrophe waiting to happen, given the magnitude of the radioactive materials to be moved and the distances to be covered.

"There's a projected 38,000 shipments in total," said Jay Coghlan, program director for the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. "There's going to be an accident someplace, sometime. It's a matter of odds."

But Roy Burkham, senior training coordinator for Westinghouse, said it's better to bury the material in salt beds 2,150 below the surface at WIPP than to leave it scattered across the country at the 10 DOE sites.

"The National Academy of Science said this is the best place for it," he said. "It heals itself. It acts like a trash compactor, and it seals it there forever."

After completing the training sessions in Cobb County this week, Mr. Burkham will move on to Douglas, Carroll and Haralson counties, the last stops on his Georgia itinerary.

Dave Williams is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.

Starting in February, the U.S. Department of Energy is planning to ship "transuranic" waste -- clothes, gloves, tools and other radioactive debris -- along interstates 20 and 59 through the following 18 Georgia counties on its 1,400 mile journey to the new Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the New Mexico desert:

Carroll
Clayton
Columbia
Dade*
DeKalb
Douglas
Fulton
Greene
Haralson
McDuffie
Morgan
Newton
Richmond
Rockdale
Taliaferro
Walton
Warren

*Radioactive material will travel along Interstate 59 through Dade County, in Georgia's extreme northwest corner, from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The other 17 affected counties lie along I-20 and will see shipments from the Savannah Rite Site near Aiken, S.C.

Source: Georgia Emergency Management Agency