January 21, 2007

California Truck Crash Load Contained 4g Plutonium

If you think all the hazardous radioactive material being transported across the country is safeguarded - or at least properly packaged and prepared for shipment on public thorofares - think again. The circumstances of last Tuesday's truck crash near the Mojave National Preserve are truly frightening if they're any indication of how carelessly lethal materials like plutonium might be traveling, perhaps in a vehicle rolling alongside you. From the San Bernadino Sun:
Baking soda, bunk beds, fire extinguishers - and a drum with plutonium-238. The truck that crashed Tuesday near Needles [CA] with a load of radioactive waste was a plain old commercial truck carrying plain old products.

When emergency workers checked the truck's manifest they were surprised that radioactive material was being shipped with ordinary goods. "This, in and of itself, is very alarming," said San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty, who also directs his agency's hazardous materials unit. Government and industry officials say shipping radioactive materials by commercial carriers is a perfectly safe, perfectly routine practice. The containers, the routes and the shipping companies are all heavily regulated, and there has never been an accident that resulted in a release of radiation, they said.

The radiation emitted by the truck's amount of plutonium-238 is trillions of times more than is allowed in drinking water, Brierty said. The four grams of plutonium involved in the crash would be roughly the volume of a pencil eraser. But that amount kicks out more than 60 curies, a measure of radioactivity.
In contrast, the drinking water standard is 15 picocuries per liter, or 15 trillionths of one curie.
The truck, pulling two trailers, crashed into a guardrail on eastbound Interstate 40, rupturing the tractor's fuel tank and causing the rear trailer to overturn and split open. The driver was unhurt. Part of the freeway was shut down for 18 hours. The heavily shielded, 500-pound, 55-gallon drum with the plutonium was in the front of the damaged trailer, California Highway Patrol Officer Michael Callahan said. The entire cargo had to be unloaded to get at the drum.

The drum was undamaged, and there was no leakage of radiation. [But,] "What the hell is that doing in that truck?" said Robert Halstead, an expert in the transportation of nuclear waste. [read full article]

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