Every year, every month, every day, nuclear material is transported on roads in the United States and across the world. Uranium for power reactors, radionuclides for medical and instrumentation purposes, and other nuclear materials are transported safely on our roads everyday for safe utilization in our power industry, schools, hospitals and industry. Regardless of this fact, on occasion the media creates a public uproar with an article on shipment of some “weapons-grade” or “highly-enriched” nuclear material.
Highly-enriched uranium (HEU) has various uses. But for the most part, HEU is utilized in research reactors for creation of radionuclides for medical purposes and for various collegiate research. HEU can also be used to create nuclear weapons. Shipments of HEU are highly secure. And when I say highly, I mean AK-47s, and highly-trained security forces highly. In addition, routes, security details, quantities, schedules and the like will be classified Secret or Top Secret.
Such details are classified for good reason. Public involvement in transportation of HEU (and other nuclear materials, for that matter) would eliminate the very elements that render such transport secure. Details such as transport mode, route, security and schedules would be available to anyone participating in the public comment process – including terrorists and would-be criminals. Additionally, public involvement in nuclear transportation matters would allow interlopers to halt the vetting process by bogging down the public involvement process (by asking literally thousands of often already answered, or baseless questions) in paperwork. Slowing such shipments could have dire consequences to the health of people depending on medical treatments or diagnosis involving radioactive isotopes.
The media tends to muddle nuclear matters in eye-catching headlines laced with trigger words such as “weapons-grade”, “nuclear crisis”, “secret”, and “bomb.” As an example, a recent article in the Canadian Globe and Mail attempts to grab readers’ attention saying “Weapons-grade uranium shipments quietly heading south”. The headline infers that the Canadian government is covertly shipping dangerous bomb material underneath the nose of the public. In fact, the article incorrectly labels the material being shipped as “weapons-grade.” Used (spent), highly-enriched uranium is typically still categorized as highly-enriched; but is certainly not “weapons-grade” or “bomb-grade” for that matter. The Hill published a much more balanced article about the same shipments described in the Globe and Mail article, with citations by actual scientists.
If such shipment details were open to the public, interlopers could also pose a threat to transportation safety. Organizations such as Greenpeace regularly threaten the safety of transportation routes for crude oil carriers and other shipments they oppose. Such interference could cause traffic accidents that could threaten the security of shipments as well as the health and safety of the public. Too many people are injured and killed in traffic accidents every year. Combative resistance against nuclear shipments could add to this already too high number.
The fact is that the details of nuclear shipments are maintained classified for the protection of the public. Shipments of HEU do not pose a threat to public safety as long as their details remain classified. There are much easier ways for terrorists to obtain nuclear materials for dirty bombs than attempts at intercepting HEU shipments. I’ll save that blog for…um…never.