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Midwest Democracy | Bill to ease radioactive rules makes some in Missouri worry

An amendment quietly added to legislation in the Missouri House would make it easier — and far less expensive — for a Canadian company to ship radioactive material through the state.

If the change becomes law, Ontario-based Nordion Inc. would no longer pay a fee or face mandatory inspections in Missouri for shipments of cobalt-60, a radioactive material the company sells for use in the sterilization of medical devices.

The amendment was written by a trade group of which Nordion is a member and presented to lawmakers by veteran Jefferson City lobbyist John Bardgett Jr. Critics contend the change has the potential to put public health and safety at risk.

“All this would do is remove some of the protections the public deserves when a hazardous material is shipped through the state,” said John Hickey, Missouri chapter director of the Sierra Club. “The fee is a fair way to reimburse the public for costs associated with ensuring this material is shipped in a safe manner.”

Supporters of the measure counter that the shipment of cobalt-60 is safe and already undergoes rigorous inspection when it enters the country.

“There have been thousands of shipments through the U.S. over the past 40 years, and there has never been an incident arising from the transportation of this product,” said Stephen Norton, a spokesman for the trade organization Gamma Industry Producers Alliance. “The sources, the containers, and all aspects of the shipping process are highly regulated, highly monitored and extremely safe.”

Radioactivity is measured using a unit known as a curie. In the last two years, Nordion has made 40 shipments of cobalt-60 through Missouri, ranging in size from 40,000 curies to 923,000 curies, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Exposure to 40,000 curies of cobalt-60 outside of its container would be the equivalent radiation to roughly 1,400 dental X-rays per second.

Close contact with that much exposed cobalt-60 would deliver a lethal dose of gamma rays in less than one minute, said Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist and senior associate with Vermont-based Radioactive Waste Management Associates.

Resnikoff said that he understands why Nordion would want to avoid the fees assessed by states, but from his perspective it would be useful to still “have inspections and to have state troopers accompany the shipments to monitor and make sure no accidents or malevolent events occur.”

The roughly 18-inch, half-pound “pencils” of cobalt-60 are transported in massive lead-lined casks on the back of flatbed trucks. The largest shipment to pass through Missouri contained roughly 25 pounds of material, Norton said, although most are much smaller.

Norton added that the containers used to transport cobalt-60 are identical to those utilized for much more radioactive material — such as spent nuclear fuel — and are certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withstand severe accidents.

Over the years, shipments of radioactive material have traveled on I-70, I-435 and I-29 in the Kansas City area, said Renee Bungart, director of communications for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

However, Nordion uses routes in eastern Missouri, specifically I-270 to I-44 and I-57 to I-55. The reason is that, in addition to a $1,800 fee per cask of cobalt-60, Missouri also charges a $25 fee for every mile traveled in the state of more than 200 miles.

“The costs can really start to add up,” Norton noted. “We try to plan our route to be the most direct, as required by the federal government, but also to reduce costs when possible.”

Norton said traveling through Missouri costs Nordion $4,000 a shipment.

Numerous Midwestern states enacted fees on shipments of radioactive waste and materials as a reaction to the federal government’s plan to send spent nuclear fuel to a national repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

In 2009, Missouri joined six other states by enacting fees, partially in response to shipments being diverted through the Show-Me State in order to avoid states where fees already were in place, said Lisa Janairo, director of the Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Group for the nonpartisan Council of State Governments.

Anyone wishing to ship radioactive material through Missouri is required to notify the state seven days in advance of a shipment’s arrival. Upon entering the state, shipments are inspected and then escorted border-to-border by the Missouri Highway Patrol.

The fees are used to pay for inspections, the patrol escort, and training for local emergency personnel on how to respond to a radioactive incident should one occur, the Department of Natural Resources’ Bungart said. During the past two years, Nordion has paid $293,000 in such fees.

“States bear the responsibility for protecting the health and safety of the public and the environment within their borders,” Janairo said. “If something goes wrong, it’s going to be the state that has to be accountable for this.”

The Gamma Industry Producers Alliance’s Norton said states were correct in preparing for radioactive waste bound for Yucca Mountain. But since the federal government scrapped the idea of a waste facility there, he said it’s appropriate to take another look at the laws that were put in place.

Even with the alliance’s proposed changes to current state law, Norton said that fees would still be collected on many other types of radioactive materials.

The danger of exposure to cobalt-60 is the gamma rays it emits. Emergency responders and others nearby would be the ones at risk of lethal doses. Exposure also results in an increased risk of cancer. But the danger decreases sharply with distance.

For a container of cobalt-60 to be breached and the material exposed, “you’d need a major smash-up,” said Resnikoff, the nuclear physicist from Vermont. “It would have to be a really bad wreck.”

There also is concern that cobalt-60 shipments could become targets of terrorists aiming to use the material to create a so-called “dirty bomb,” Janairo said.

Norton, however, dismissed such fears as unfounded. The containers weigh several tons and moving them requires a crane.

The fact that no legislation was ever introduced to change the rules for shipping radioactive materials in Missouri is also drawing criticism. Instead, when a Senate bill dealing with sales taxes on the transportation of goods by truck was set to be voted on by the House Transportation Committee, the changes were included as an amendment.

The amended legislation was approved by the committee on April 11.

State Rep. Charlie Denison, a Republican from Springfield who’s chairman of the Transportation Committee, told The Star that he couldn’t recall where the amendment originated. There were numerous proposed amendments to the Senate bill, he said, a practice that is normal at the end of the legislative session.

But Norton said he drafted the amendment on behalf of the Gamma Industry Producers Alliance and contracted with lobbyist Bardgett to present it to the transportation committee. The same strategy was used in Ohio last year, Norton said, where that state’s legislature completely repealed similar regulations.

“There was no intent to ‘slip’ something in,” Norton insisted. “A standalone bill was not necessary and working through the Transportation Committee is the appropriate body.”

However, the Sierra Club’s Hickey said using an amendment avoids public scrutiny of the measure. If someone wants to rework how the state deals with radioactive material, he argued, then the debate should be held in the open.

“These changes didn’t get the scrutiny they deserved, because they can’t stand up to scrutiny,” Hickey said.

Still, Norton said he’s confident the changes will pass this year. The bill is now in the House Rules Committee. If passed, it would go to the full House for debate.