Nuclear Waste Hazards on East Texas Roadway

Danger rolls down one of East Texas' most traveled highways. Trucks carrying containers of nuclear waste share Interstate 20 with thousands of drivers... and they have for several years now.

The government says the shipments are safe, but the first people who might respond to an accident have a plan if the unthinkable happens.

"It's just something that we have to keep in mind. It's out there, just like any other material that drives down the interstate," says Lindale firefighter Richard Knight.

On this Interstate, there are often crashes. A trailer overturned on I-20 near Lindale just before Noon Monday. No one was hurt, but battery acid had to be neutralized and propane tanks cleared.

Sharing this highway are often tanks of nuclear waste.

If something were to happen to those trucks, Knight says it wouldn't be business as usual.

"At that point, we would secure the perimeter, and wait for the nuclear response team to show up," he says.

Firefighters have been told how to react, by evacuating.  But they can't start cleaning up.

"We don't have obviously all the gear they have, but we would know a small amount of leakage."

That's because they have Geiger counters. Every fire department along a waste route has them. One route is I-20, and the other is a train route that meanders from Harrison County to Pittsburg, Gilmer, Big Ssandy, then parallels Highway 80 West.

All waste is headed to disposal in New Mexico. These routes will be used indefinitely.

"The trucks are followed by vehicles, and they have satellite tracking systems on them," Knight adds.

That means firefighters will know right away if there's danger on board.  Knight says folks shouldn't worry.

"The containers [the waste is] in have been tested, and dropped off ten story buildings. There's less danger of a nuclear incident around here than being in a car accident," he adds.

That is what keeps him busy, and what he says drivers should really watch out for.

In 2010, the Yucca Mountain plant in Nevada is set to open, taking all the country's nuclear waste for years. The routes are still projected to run through East Texas.

The majority of the radioactive material comes from the country's nuclear power plants.