[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.