Transportation or radioactive materials on the nation's highways and byways has been called the "soft under- belly" of the nuclear industry. Antinuclear forces have been attacking it with success.
Now the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has proposed rules that will take away the antinuclear activists' man weapon: local restrictions on the shipment on radioactive wastes, nuclear fuel, and similar substances.
The proposed ruling, Routing of Radioactive Materials," is an attempt to set federal standards concerning radioactive shipments. It places routing decisions in the hands of the states and drastically increases the penalties to those who do not obey federal safety regulations.
Increasing public concern about the safety of nuclear power over the last few years has led to a checkerboard of restrictions on the shipment of nuclear materials. Cities ranging from New York City to Missoula, Mont., have banned such shipments within their jurisdiction. This has caused increasing concern among representatives of the nuclear industry.
In part, these new rules are an attempt to address this concern. They are also an attempt to rectify the problems that led recently to the closure of the nation's largest radioactive waste dump, in Washington State. Washington's pronuclear governor, Dixy Lee Ray, closed the site briefly last fall because spot checks uncovered improper packaging of radioactive shipments and mechanical problems with the trucks transporting them.
Under the new regulations the penalties for noncompliance with federal regulations will be increased from less than $1,000 to $10,000 per violation with a $25,000 fine and 10- year jail sentence in case of death or injury. The regulations further require shippers to prove that they trained their personnel about the dangers of handling radioactive materials and the proper safety measures.
There will be a series of public hearings on the rules in the next two months. The proposed ruling has been called "a hot potato" by DOT insiders because of its controversial, political aspects. After an indefinite period following the hearings, the department will issue final regulations.