Motorists across the South could soon be sharing the highway with nuclear waste generated decades ago in developing the first atomic bomb.
Tons of this so-called "transuranic waste" have been waiting for years to leave what is now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for a final home in New Mexico, where the government has built a permanent vault in salt beds nearly a half-mile deep.
The material includes clothes, lab equipment, tools and scrap. All was contaminated by manmade isotopes such as plutonium.
Most from Oak Ridge can be handled without special gear, but some requires heavy protective shielding, officials said.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates it will take 60 to 120 shipments a year for three years to move all the material from Oak Ridge to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. There are about 74,000 cubic feet of waste to be moved out of Oak Ridge, enough to fill 10 buildings.
The 27-hour, 1,400-mile journey from Oak Ridge will pass through Chattanooga to Birmingham, Ala., across Mississippi and Arkansas to Pecos, Texas, and north to Carlsbad. The route avoids Memphis and Nashville.
The DOE has contracted a fleet of specially designed tractor-trailers and highly trained drivers for what is being called a "campaign" to collect this material from nuclear weapons sites around the country. The agency will spend $20 million over five years just on shipping.
Already, some 6,800 truckloads of material have been brought to WIPP from DOE sites in Washington state, Idaho, New Mexico and South Carolina. Shipments from Oak Ridge and Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago are next.
During a briefing Monday in Oak Ridge, the DOE and its contractors emphasized the safety of these shipments and precautions that have been taken. Two big rigs were showcased in what was the first stop in a public education tour along the route to New Mexico.
Each trailer is outfitted with huge containers or casks. One trailer has three large silo-shapped casks for less radioactive material. The other has a single stainless-steel and lead-lined cask for higher rated material.
"The cask is tested to be dropped. It is tested by fire. It is tested by water to try and penetrate it and we have not been able to do that," said DOE-Carlsbad project manager William Mackie.
Mackie said the stainless steel cask should not separate from the trailer in a rollover accident, while the three 20,000-pound rounded casks are designed to break away - in which case "the thing we worry about is not a radiation leak, but it is any car or person that is in the way."
Each truck is operated by a two-member team trained in the requirements of the rig, radioactivity and how to deal with an emergency. "Everything has got to be just right," said driver Tommy Cash of Carlsbad.
The tractor-trailers are equipped with tracking devices for DOE and state emergency officials to monitor.
In Tennessee, each rig also will have a Tennessee Highway Patrol escort. Local emergency response agencies along the route have received training and radiation detection equipment.
"We have radioactive material moving on the highway all the time," said Elgan Usrey, assistant director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. But this is different, he said. "It is the larger quantity."
Tennessee environmental officials will not allow transuranic waste to be buried in the state. The New Mexico facility, completed in the late 1980s, opened in 1999.
The first Oak Ridge shipments could begin this fall, possibly by September. New Mexico environmental officials have approved the Tennessee shipments, but approval is pending with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bobby St. John, a contractor spokesman from WIPP, said the shipments are unlikely terrorist targets because the material "is all solid. It is all debris waste. You really can't do anything with it. This isn't suitable for dirty bombs. Not to mention the containers are so robust you couldn't get into one."
Gawkers are a greater concern. "We don't want to be the cause of an accident because somebody is trying to figure out what is going on," he said.