What is that radioactive waste?



Winonans driving down Riverview Drive may have noticed railcars with big yellow hazardous-materials placards with the warning, “radioactive.” For more than a year-and-a-half, low-level radioactive waste from a nuclear power plant being decommissioned in Genoa, Wis., has been transloaded from trucks onto railcars in Winona on its way to a long-term storage facility in Utah.

The steel intermodal containers are full of rubble, metal, wiring, and other debris from demolished structures at the La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor in Genoa, Wis. It does not contain any high-level radioactive waste, such as nuclear fuel. “There’s very, very, very little risk to the public on this,” Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle assured residents. “The shipment containers are more than enough to take care of any radioactivity, and they’re built like a brick house,” he stated.

EnergySolutions runs one of the few permanent storage facilities for low-level radioactive waste in the U.S. The company is helping decommission the Genoa plant. Fuel from the reactor is already in interim storage near the plant. Now EnergySolutions is shipping refuse from the demolition through Winona and on its way to EnergySolutions’ Clive, Utah, storage facility. EnergySolutions Vice President for Marketing and Public Relations Mark Walker stated that the waste being shipped is class A radioactive waste, one of the lowest levels of radioactivity. “The walls of the railcar act as a shielding. So combine that with how low the level of radiation is in the waste, the people of Winona can be assured that this process is very safe,” he stated.

Hazardous-material safety information for the waste indicates that there is a “low radiation hazard when material is inside [a] container. If material is released from [a] package or bulk container, hazard will vary from low to moderate.”

If any of the containers were to be punctured in an accident, the Winona Fire Department’s (WFD) emergency-response plan calls for evacuating people within 330 feet downwind of the accident and keeping people 75 feet away from the material on all sides until a radioactive waste clean-up crew arrives.

While the radioactive placards might be a little frightening to citizens, these shipments are not at the top of Bittle’s list of concerns. “Realistically, there’s probably more of a danger from a gasoline tanker filling up at [the gas station] or any of the pesticides being shipped out of Winona,” he stated. “We’ve had tank cars rolling through town for 70 years. In the grand scheme of things, this is small potatoes,” Bittle added. Still, the fire chief continued, “Please rest assured, we did our due diligence on this.”

Winona is not on the way to Utah. Asked why his company is transloading containers in Winona, Walker stated, “We selected this yard because of the close proximity to the project and also because [there] is a Union Pacific rail [line].” Walker explained that Union Pacific (UP) services its Clive, Utah, storage facility. UP does operate a spur line along the riverfront in Winona, but the main running line through town belongs to Canadian Pacific Railway. A BNSF Railway line runs right past the Genoa plant.

Once the debris from the Genoa plant reaches Utah, EnergySolutions buries it in clay-lined cells. “There it will be disposed of, and it’ll remain there forever,” Walker stated.

Walker added that the demolition work at Genoa is wrapping up within the next several weeks, and the shipments will soon be coming to a close.



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