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Nuclear waste unlikely to travel through High Country

Reid Williams and Matt Zalaznick

Nuclear waste on the way to Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert is unlikely to travel along Interstate 70 or come through the High Country, says U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.

A project 20 years in the making, Congress has approved burying thousands of tons of radioactive waste inside the remote mountain about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. 

“Sen. Allard is very comfortable in saying I-70 will not be a primary route for Yucca Mountain waste,” said Sean Conway, Allard’s chief of staff and press secretary. “Their criteria says routes must avoid mountain passes, tunnels and congested areas.”

Colorado stores 14.7 metric tons of radioactive waste at the Fort St. Vrain power plant, which was converted from a nuclear facility in 1992. The plant is in Platteville, halfway between Boulder and Greeley.

That waste likely will be shipped to Yucca Mountain, Allard said.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy, said the agency – when moving waste – tries to steer clear of 10,000-foot mountain passes and blizzards.

“We try to avoid weather conditions like that – and high winds, too – to the extent possible,” Davis said.

Among the strict criteria the Nuclear Regulatory Commission set out for moving waste is not shipping it over mountain passes, through tunnels or past heavily populated or congested areas, Davis said.

“One thing we look at are populated areas when moving nuclear waste,” Davis said. “We look at it for each shipment.”

Nuclear waste shipments headed for Yucca Mountain will skirt the I-70 mountain corridor by traveling I-25 north to I-80 in Wyoming, or south to I-40 in New Mexico before continuing the journey west to Nevada.

Some of the credit for detouring waste transportation goes to mountain residents themselves. Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom, a mountain resident since the 1970s and former Summit County undersheriff, said the Yucca Mountain Project has been a concern for community leaders since the 1980s. With the support of Dillon Valley residents concerned about the safety of their water supply flowing downvalley from the Eisenhower Tunnel, the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution opposing shipments of nuclear waste along the I-70 mountain corridor. Lindstrom said the commissioners lobbied the state’s Department of Transportation commission to pass a similar resolution. A Colorado State Patrol captain in the hazardous materials division also made several speaking appearances opposing any mountain routes.

“We’re continuing to monitor it, but we don’t believe the route will ever change,” Lindstrom said. “There’s too many places you could have problems.”

The U.S. Senate has approved the use of Yucca Mountain by a 60-39 vote. The U.S. House of Representatives has voted in favor of the project, 306-117. The approval, backed by the Bush Administration, came despite ferocious protests from the state of Nevada and its elected officials.

But many senators and members of Congress argued waste piling up across the country is threatening the county’s nuclear power industry.

“”I believe it is a safe repository,” said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.

If the country does not find a central waste site, Lott said, “”we’re going to have to shut down” the nuclear industry.

Colorado’s other Republican senator voted against the dump, as did many Democrats, such Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

“”While I want this high-level nuclear waste out of our state … there are too many uncertainties, too many unresolved issues and the risks are too high,” Wellstone said.

His state’s utility has said the waste problem could force it to shut the Prairie Island nuclear power plant.

Colorado is also scrambling to clean up the former nuclear weapons plant at Rocky Flats between Golden and Boulder. The cleanup is supposed to be complete by 2006.

Prior to casting his vote, Allard met with Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Federal Highway Administration officials to discuss residents’ concerns about waste traveling on I-70, Conway said.

“Sen. Allard studied it very closely and he feels very comfortable I-70 will not be a route for Yucca Mountain waste or any other nuclear waste,” Conway said. “What he will be working on now that the issue has been decided by Congress is working with Secretary Abraham get a more definite statement in terms of routes.”

It appears residents of the Vail Valley do not have to worry about nuclear waste rumbling past their homes, fishing holes and bike trails.

“It goes against the very criteria the Department of Energy established for such transportation,” Conway said.

Summit County Commissioner Bill Wallace was confident enough in the security of mountain residents to urge them to concentrate on more pressing issues.

“We understand it’s a done deal,” Wallace said. “I wish people would be more concerned about noxious weeds and not watering their lawns.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or

rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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