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The History Channel's Mega Disasters "Glow Train Catastrophe"

The History Channel's "Mega Disasters" series ran an episode last night showing the "potential disaster" of trains transporting used nuclear fuel in dry casks. Dr. Buzz0 (aka Steve Packard) over at Depleted Cranium saw the episode and thought it was "just sickening." Here's what he had to say:
[The] theoretical “Mega Disaster” was not a nuclear weapon being used on a civilian population, but rather the idea of a train carrying nuclear waste somehow derailing or colliding with another train and thus causing a massive disaster, possibly wiping out Las Vegas or some other city, while en route to the Yucca Mountain Federal Waste Repository.

The show starts off with one of the worst examples of bad science I’ve seen in a long time. It notes that the trains carrying the nuclear material have been dubbed “glow trains” by anti-nuclear groups. Of course, we have dealt with the stupid “glow” issue before, but it gets worse. After this mention, the show then uses the term “glow train” on several occasions, in statements such as “but what if a glow train were to derail…” Yeah.. clearly we can see which side is getting the say here.


The show basically seems to consist of a lot of information about rail disasters, some of which have been quite bad in recent years. It then seems to equate these to nuclear waste as if there is some kind of connection to nuclear materials being equally likely to be in such an incident, but capable of increasing the magnitude to catastrophic levels! There are several interviews with emergency personnel (obviously the clueless ones) who state how they are not prepared to deal with a massive nuclear event and how difficult and destructive it would be.

The logic here is so flawed it is absurd. Yes, there are rail disasters and they do carry the potential for mass devastation. A train filled with LPG, toxic chemicals, explosives or other material carry the potential to devastate a large area in a mishap. Yet, these trains are allowed to travel the routes of the United States and other countries with little attention. Accidents can happen and they do. People have died. Communities have been severely damaged.

Yet nuclear materials like spent fuel poses no such risk. If a train were to derail or crash, the waste cask would simply need to be picked up and put back on a new train car or flatbed truck. Spent fuel is a high density ceramic. It cannot burn, explode or evaporate. It stays in one place and is chemically and physically inert. The casks which contain the material have been tested to extremes. In my opinion, it’s really overkill and unnecessary to go to the extreme measures taken, but they are definitely very very safe. And what if one were to be broken open? Well the fuel rods would fall out and the DOE would have to come and pick them up and put them in a new cask. At worst, they might fragment into small pebble-size pieces, which would not be too difficult to pick up.

The only real danger to the locals would be the physical damage from the train - the same as any other train. The cask of nuclear waste could indeed be deadly… if it falls on you. As far as the radiological danger, most of this stuff will be aged enough that the most radioactive fission byproducts will be long gone. The radiological dangers from this material would be limited to those who are in very close contact with the stuff. Therefore… don’t eat it, as that could be dangerous. Dust produced would be extremely minimal and dispersal would be minute.

Well done! Here's a video that shows how impenetrable these casks are.

Here's some more info on NEI's website on the safe transportation of used fuel. If you feel in the mood to be irritated and annoyed, the "glow train" episode is scheduled to air again on Tuesday, July 8.


Anonymous said…
Why not sue the History Channel for disinformation? If they misrepresented the facts, then bring them to court. Freedom of speech does not mean license to prevaricate and disseminate disinformation. Freedom of speech means responsibility to the truth, something the History Channel obviously lacks when it comes to the transport of spent nuclear fuel. By the way, the History Channel also lacks this ability when distorting the Bible in its little segments on ancient history. But that's exactly what I expect from the liberal left. "Truth - what is truth?" The cry of every liberal - first said by Pontius Pilate, the epitome of every liberal politician.
Murray said…
The Mega Disasters series; 'Glow Train', 'San Francisco Earthquake' and 'Dam Break' indicate that the History Channel is losing its ability and desire to make actual history interesting and has stooped to prediction and fear mongering to attract an audience. From history to hysteria - quite a decline.
Anonymous said…
Is it just me or does "glow train" sound decidedly benign? Makes me kind of wish one would roll through town.
Wensink said…
Glow Train brings back horrible memories of Fox's Glow Puck.
Matthew66 said…
I read a review in Newsweek last week on the History Channel's "The Lost Pyramid" which panned the show as basically an ill informed piece of entertainment pandering to a particular audience. Sounds to me like any credibility the History Channel ever had is disappearing fast.

They didn't consult any reputable Egyptologists for "The Lost Pyramid" either. Google "lost pyramid" today and you'll find the review.
Anonymous said…
This kind of thing is more egregious than any protest or frivolous lawsuit by the anti-nukes. It is false, misleading information that will be broadcasted to the public. These shows will create a new generation of antis. A kid watches this once, and then he/she has to fight through all of the cognitive dissonance later in life when he/she is confronted with the truth. Fear is powerful, and does not require you to think. We cannot allow fear to trump rationality.

How can this be stopped? I don't want to draw too much attention to this show, but I can't let it go on without calling out the truth. Thoughts?
knownukes said…
Free speech, as far as I know, does not allow for crying "Fire" in a crowded theatre. And the energy theater needs nuclear as one of its main actors.
Maybe there is merit to a law suit. But then again, I am an engineer, not a lawyer.
DV8 2XL said…
The charge of "reckless or malicious speech" usually requires that the statements are likely to incite imminent lawless action. Unfortunately this is not the case here. But It is very poor documentary journalism. Perhaps the advertisers need to get some heat over this. That generally gets more attention from the station than direct criticism.
Anonymous said…
"Why not sue the History Channel for disinformation?"

a minor speedbump called the US Constitution.

"If they misrepresented the facts, then bring them to court."

that doesn't even come close to meeting the legal criteria for libel.

Hilarious to read whining like this from some of the same folks who accuse the anti-nukes of being overly litiguous.

In a free society, one counters bad information with good information, not government repression of speech.
Stephen said…
A lawsuit is not really the way to do it. Even if you could win (in light of the free speech aspects) it would do little to prevent this garbage from coming out again and it's unlikely you'd get much money - if any. Also, it could be used as more PR ammo in the wrong direction.

I suggest expressing disgust to the history channel's marketing department and to advertisers with the acute message that you think it reflects poorly on their products and will not be purchasing them.

That might get their attention. However, it won't unless they get a pretty good number of responses. One or two won't do it. One or two hundred might. One or two thousand will.

I will be researching out the sponsors and contact information in the next day or so and it will be up on my page:

Sorry for the time to get this done, but I've been away and have much to get done now.
Felix Killar said…
If the History Channel really wanted to provide a public service it would focus on how the government works to protect the citizens from man-made mega disasters. The Glow train is an excellent example. The regulations of the Department of Transportation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were specifically designed to prevent the adverse impact that the glow train portrays. The structural requirements which are imposed on the shipping container are to assure if it fell off the train into a deep canyon or if a bridge fell on it the radioactivity shielding would still be in place. In addition it is assumed there will be a big fire following the train wreck so a fire resistance requirement is also in place. I am surprised that they didn’t drop it in Lake Mead after the fire and imply that it made the water toxic, but this is also considered in the DOT and NRC requirements. These requirements are to protect the public but more importantly to protect the emergency personnel who are responding to the event.
Anonymous said…
I get it. You moderate the comments and burn the negs. Makes it look like all the posts here are pro-Glow Train.
Well. I ain't buying it.
A toxic cloud or LP gas explosion disapates. A cracked dry cask and a fire will spread radioactive materials for dozens, maybe hundreds of square miles covering buildings, plants and bodys of water. It would be impossible to clean up. If this happened in a large city like Phoenix, or Baltimore or Trenton or Las Vegas, it would be the END of that city.
Even if the citizens of the city were safe THEY WOULD NEVER COME BACK.

Like New Orleans. Never.
And it would cost our country Billions of dollars.
Accidents DO happen. So why risk BILLIONS of dollars?
Michelle said…
A professional scientist, or member of an organization such as NEI, commenting on a television series designed to be sensational in order to attract viewers is akin to Clarence Darrow critiquing a 4th grade debate team: it is misplaced and borders on absurd. I We are so accustomed to receiving information from television that we forget that a dramatization is precisely about theatrics rather than factual accuracy. We would all be served to keep these distinctions.
Anonymous said…
If the nuclear material were as dangerous as they claim, surely the train would be closely monitored as far as speed, rail switches, advanced recon for terrorists, etc, to make it absolutely safe. The low levels of radioactivity and the processing used to make it safe for transport would negate any dispersion of harmful material in the event of an accident. What I would like to know is who (the coal lobby, oil lobby...) paid for this biased documentary. Who ever it was certainly has something to gain by smearing, delaying and undermining the value of nuclear power to solve many of our energy needs. Should we consume all the oil before we are willing to take the chance on transporting nuclear waste? Oil is too valuable to burn as many products are dependent upon it. By that time we'll have a polluted CO2 laiden planet, and still have the same perceived risk of transortation... then we'll have to take the chance. I'd rather take that unfounded risk now, and have a beautiful world to give to our children. France has been producing nuclear power for years safely, and exporting its excess capacity to other countries for a profit, much as we, the USA, used to do when our oil production capacity exceeded our demand back in the 70's. I believe we produced 10 units for every 7 needed and exported the rest. Nowadays we consume 20 units and only produce 7, thereby having to import 13. Why has national production gone down over all these years? If you want to find the answer, "follow the money". We must look to foreign countries such as France and Spain for leadership in the areas of renewable/clean energy...
Ted Keer said…
The show depicts the derailed waste fuel cannister in a fire, with smoke being given off by the burning propane tanks from another train which collided with it. As we see the cloud, an anti-nuclear advocate asserts arbitrearily that "it" could spread over an area three miles wide and twelve miles long? What is it? The non-radioactive smoke from the propane? A magical, apparently "walking" swarm of ceramic cylinders which cannot melt, or burn? The intellectual dishonesty here is incredible. How can their "consultants" live with themselves?
OmegaPaladin said…
Anonymous of July 2, 2008 3:28 AM,

Funny, your comment got through, despite your alleged censorship.

Anyway, in order to fracture a cask, you would need a very large bomb, and I'm assuming the US air force isn't going to bomb the truck. So, you are arguing that something improbable on the order of being killed by a meteor from space is a risk we should not take. How do you ever cross the street - it is so dangerous compared to what you are harping about.
Xfyrchief said…
I am a retired Fire Chief who spent 30 years doing hazmat response. I spent 9 years on a technical group studying the transportation of spent fuel and other nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. I have no concerns about the transportation of the material. As has been stated, the transportation casks are designed to withstand a series of potential incidents, including fuel fires, crash, and submersion (following the fire test.)

As for route safety, the current proposals for using a "mostly rail" scenario require that the material be transported only over rail of the highest classification in trains that will be tracked every mile.

As a hazmat technician I was more concerned over the trains carrying a string of 20 or more cars, each carrying 33,600 gallons of anhydrous ammonia only 50 feet from the front door of our fire station.

I'm sorry, but unless you spend time fully researching the issues, it is impossible for one to give an informed opinion on the relative safety of the transportation of nuclear materials. One final comment - the U. S. Navy has been transporting the reactor cores from nuclear ships across country for years - without a single incident.
J Hill said…
I like this series just because it makes me laugh. Most of it is junk science and really is no better than "Destroyed in Seconds". People will believe just about anything if you throw enough pseudo-scientific terminology at them. Want to see reality? Watch Jack-Ass. Or You-Tube.

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