The train from hell

5-9 November 2010: A vitrified waste convoy in the media spotlight

Chaotic journey
The route of the eleventh rail convoy transporting radioactive waste from France to Germany was changed many times during the journey that lasted from 5 to 9 November 2010, due to action by anti-nuclear organisations. Several thousand French and especially German anti-nuclear campaigners protested against what they dubbed the "most radioactive convoy in history". The train eventually reached its destination on 9 November after numerous ordeals.

"Chernobyl on wheels", "the train from hell" and "the most radioactive convoy ever" were among the many imaginative epithets used by the media and anti-nuclear movements to describe the convoy of vitrified waste that pulled out of Valognes on Friday 5 November 2010, bound for the Gorleben storage facility in Germany. For five days, the free newspapers distributed in the Metro made hay from the convoy's trials and tribulations.

The 14-wagon train was carrying 308 casks containing 154 tonnes of vitrified waste produced by reprocessing spent fuel from German nuclear power stations at the facility in La Hague. In accordance with international law and the relevant agreements between the two countries, such waste must be returned to its country of origin after a few years in interim storage in La Hague. In Germany, waste is sent to Gorleben, where appropriate storage facilities exist.

The convoy that set out on 5 November was the eleventh of a series of 12 planned convoys between France and Germany. These consignments have always been the focus of violent opposition by anti-nuclear movements. During the 2004 convoy, a militant died after chaining himself to the track. The four-day eleventh convoy would be no exception to the rule.

The organisations Greenpeace and Sortir du Nucléaire stated that "the most radioactive convoy ever" was carrying at least twice as much radioactivity as all the radioactive pollution released by the Chernobyl disaster". Anne Lauvergeon, at the time Chairman of Areva declared this to be an outrageous claim.

CASTOR transport casks
This photo shows German police patrolling the platforms after the convoy reached its destination. The 154 tonnes of nuclear waste reprocessed in La Hague for German power plants was split between 28 CASTOR transport casks, each containing 11 drums or containers of vitrified waste. CASTORS (Cask for storage and transport of radioactive material) are designed to shield against radiation and withstand accidents. If this were not the case, the police patrol would be less relaxed.
Le Point.fr Michael Probst/AP/SIPA

Was this convoy dangerous?

In an interview published in the Monde, Thierry Charles, Director of waste transport safety at the French radiation protection and nuclear safety institute (Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire - IRSN) put the event into perspective.

What types of waste did the convoy carry? « "The processing operation separates recyclable energy-producing materials from non-recyclable "final" waste. Spent fuel contains around 95% uranium and 1% plutonium, which can be reused to generate electricity. The remaining 4% consist of fission product and minor actinides produced by the nuclear reactors. It is this highly radioactive waste that France sends back to Germany."»

What measures were taken to ensure that the convoy was safe? "The fission products and actinides were first contained by casting them into blocks of glass, and then placed in stainless steel containers with welded covers. Lastly, these containers were placed in CASTOR steel casks, which have an average wall thickness of 25 cm."

Protesters chained to the tracks
During this eleventh waste transport convoy, protesters chained themselves to the tracks in a forest in Lower Saxony, in a repeat of the delaying tactic that cost a militant his life in 2004. The police can be seen attempting to clear the tracks. Despite isolated scuffles, the confrontation with thousands of protesters remained largely peaceful.
Le Point.fr / Michael Probst/AP/SIPA
... and police officers
Due to determined opposition by the Greens and antinuclear organisations, some 20,000 police officers were assigned to the convoy escort operation. Certain militants had chained themselves to the track, and others attempted to remove the rails. During the final phase, consisting in unloading the waste from the train in order to transfer it by road to Gorleben, farmers blocked the road with flocks of sheep.
Le Point.fr / Michael Probst/AP/SIPA
The role of the cask is to contain highly radioactive materials in the event of an accident, and to shield against radiation. To ensure that these containers provide effective accident protection, they undergo a battery of tests stipulated by international regulations.

CASTOR casks must also attenuate radiation. They comply with a regulation issued by the IAEA: the dose rate (i.e. the level of irradiation received by people) must not exceed 2 millisieverts per hour (2 mSv/h) in contact with the cask, and 0.1 mSv/h at a distance of 2 m from the convoy. There is indeed some radiation around the convoy, but according to the measurements made by Areva and IRSN, the limit was not exceeded.

All in all, it was not dangerous. "This is the eleventh time that a train carrying such containers has been sent to Germany. Belgian and Swiss waste is also processed in La Hague and returned to its country of origin. This time, environmental organisations pointed to the large number of containers as a cause for alarm. The train was carrying 11 CASTORs ,each containing 28 containers, making a total of 308. Previous convoys carried an average of 240 containers. Having said that, there is very little difference between a train with 10 CASTORS and one with 11…"

Chernobyl on wheels?
Green organisations calculated that the convoy was carrying 3.9 billion billion becquerels of radioactivity, equivalent to that of Chernobyl. The analogy is frightening but misleading! This level of radioactivity is inside the convoy, not escaping from the wagons. According to measurements by safety authorities, a trackside militant standing 2 m from the train as it passes by at low speed (with the convoy assumed to take 5 minutes to move past the militant) would receive the equivalent of one day's natural background radioactivity. At a distance of 20 m this equivalent amount would fall to a quarter of an hour.
6 novembre 2010/REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Underlying issues

Protesting against radioactive waste convoys is an iconic cause for anti-nuclear militants. However, the stage-managed action and media hubris defied all rational logic. What would people say if we had caved in to the opponents to nuclear transport and simply dumped waste into the environment? After all, if this radioactive material is processed and vitrified, it is to protect the environment, including the people who lie down across the tracks!
Is there any merit to the argument against storing vitrified waste in Gorleben? German engineers are among the best in the world. The facilities in Gorleben reflect their expertise. Returning waste to power plants, dispersing them as in the USA would greatly increase the number of disposal sites.

Residents of Gorleben fear that this waste might one day be disposed of in their town, rather than simply held in interim storage. We should listen more closely to engineers and scientists rather than letting our concerns get the better of us. Major industrial nations must manage their nuclear waste responsibly and avoid repeating the sorry precedent set a few years ago by pharmaceutical manufacturers, which were dumping toxic waste near a shanty town in Côte d'Ivoire.

Go to page in French