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Officials practice 'what-if' incident involving nuclear fuel

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by John Milburn on June 16.)

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Two people driving a stolen 2 1/2-ton truck sideswipe a sedan stopped at a railroad crossing, then strike a Union Pacific train carrying a container of spent nuclear fuel bound for Idaho.

Soon, emergency personnel arrive, treating victims and searching for the drunken truck occupants.

The scene Tuesday was a drill, the scenario was a traffic accident and the nuclear fuel from Navy ships was simulated. But officials conducting the exercise said the event heightens awareness of the pains taken to protect against intentional attack on shipments crossing the country.

Spent nuclear fuel is transported by rail from Naval shipyards on the East and West coasts to the Naval Reactors Facility at the Idaho National Energy and Environmental Laboratory west of Idaho Falls. The fuel is transported in a rail container with 14-inch thick steel, sandwiched between flatcars. Two U.S. Marshalls in the caboose guard the shipment.

Kevin Davis, of the Naval Reactors Program, said between three and 20 rail shipments of spent fuel are made each year.

"It's simply a matter of efficiency and safety," he said.

Training exercises occur every two years, but Tuesday's was the first not on federal property. It was held near a grain elevator in Topeka.

Over the past decade, railroads have been strengthening their security, said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis. Union Pacific has 2,500 trains operating daily, including 125 a day through Kansas.

"For all the hazardous materials that we carry, a person is 10 times more likely to be struck by lightning than be injured by a hazardous material accident," Davis said. "But we don't rest on our laurels."

Although training exercises help test response and allow officials to address any shortfalls, much of the burden for maintaining safety still falls on the railroads' employees and their own police forces.

"If you look at our day-to-day operations, our own employees are the best eyes and ears," Davis said.

Railroads receive an average of 75 calls each day from the public about suspicious activity, he said, down from a high of 300 a day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The railroads hold daily meetings to discuss security and safety issues and to share information, Davis said. Beyond their own surveillance, railroads must bear the costs of much of the ongoing infrastructure upgrades.

Ed McKechnie, executive vice president for Watco Cos., a shortline railroad company in Pittsburg, said response to a security threat has to be quick to protect cargo and the public.

Watco, which owns 2,800 miles of track throughout the United States, activates a 24-hour operation center when alerted of a potential treat. McKechnie said that when that happens, officials find all hazardous materials on the rails and make sure it's secure.

The goal is to balance safety with the free flow of commerce, he said.

"It has to be done in a way that makes sense," he said, adding that the biggest hole in safety is where automobiles and trains intersect.

Kansas' investment in railroad infrastructure includes about $9 million annually in upgrades to the 6,000 highway railroad crossings, and a $75 million program to improve crossings on non-state highways, said Al Cathcart, coordinating engineer in the bureau of design for the state Department of Transportation.

Joy Moser, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Emergency Management, said rail accidents occur frequently in the state, such as train-car accidents and accidental derailments. But in the past three years, accidents are viewed warily.

"You always think of this happening on the East Coast or West Coast, but the potential is here," Moser said. "I think everybody takes is more seriously."

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

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