Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2020-2021
A freighter carrying high level radioactive waste from France arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, on November 20. The freighter, Pacific Heron, left Cherbourg November 5 with a load of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which had been used to power marine beacons. The Pacific Heron crossed the Atlantic with a deactivated location beacon—a common practice with shipments of radioactive waste—leaving the vessel difficult to locate and at higher risk of an accident, especially at night.
The RTGs contain strontium-90, a radioactive isotope dangerous for 300 years that is produced by nuclear reactors and bomb tests. It is known to cause leukemia, skin cancer, and bone cancer. In the body, strontium-90 behaves like calcium and permanently embeds itself in bone tissue, exposing the surrounding cells to continuous radiation. Because children have rapid bone growth, they are particularly susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of strontium-90.
The RTGs will be trucked across the US and buried in a shallow trench at the former Nevada Test Site, where RTGs have been disposed of in the past. Savannah River Site Watch reports that the RTGs are believed to have been fabricated by the US Department of Energy. The group said in a news release that neither the public in South Carolina, Nevada, nor the states along the route have granted permission for or even been informed of the transport of these materials through their jurisdictions. Neither the Nevada Attorney General nor the US Department Energy responded to requests for information.