JEFFERSON CITY — An amendment to legislation currently in the Missouri House would allow a Canadian company to pay fewer fees and avoid mandatory inspections of colbalt-60, the radioactive material it ships through the state.
Critics say the change could be a risk to public health, while supporters of the legislation say cobalt-60 is already inspected at the Canadian border and that no problems have been reported during 40 years of shipping the material in the U.S., The Kansas City Star reported Tuesday.
"All this would do is remove some of the protections the public deserves when a hazardous material is shipped through the state," said John Hickey, Missouri chapter director of the Sierra Club. "The fee is a fair way to reimburse the public for costs associated with ensuring this material is shipped in a safe manner."
Supporters say colbalt-60 is highly regulated and containers used to ship it are the same used for much more radioactive material — such as spent nuclear fuel — that are certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to withstand severe accidents.
"The sources, the containers, and all aspects of the shipping process are highly regulated, highly monitored and extremely safe," said Stephen Norton, a spokesman for the trade organization Gamma Industry Producers Alliance.
Ontario-based Nordion Inc. sells the cobalt-60 for use in the sterilization of medical devices. It uses routes on Interstate-270 to Interstate-44 and Interstate-57 to Interstate-55 in eastern Missouri, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. The roughly 18-inch, half-pound "pencils" of cobalt-60 are transported in massive lead-lined casks on the back of flatbed trucks.
The company has made 40 shipments across the state in the past two years, ranging in size from 40,000 curies to 923,000 curies, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The largest shipment to pass through Missouri contained roughly 25 pounds of material, Norton said, though most are much smaller.
Close contact with 40,000 curies of exposed cobalt-60 would deliver a lethal dose of gamma rays in less than one minute, said Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist and senior associate with Vermont-based Radioactive Waste Management Associates. But he said "you'd need a major smash-up" to breach the containers and expose the material.
"It would have to be a really bad wreck," he said.
Nordion is charged $1,800 per cask of cobalt-60, plus a $25 fee for every mile traveled in the state of more than 200 miles. The company pays about $4,000 a shipment to travel through Missouri, Norton said.
The state must be notified two weeks in advance of any shipments of radioactive material across the state. When the material arrives, it is inspected and then escorted border-to-border by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
During the past two years, Nordion has paid $293,000 in fees, which pay for the inspections, the patrol escort and training for local emergency personnel.
"States bear the responsibility for protecting the health and safety of the public and the environment within their borders," said Lisa Janairo, director of the Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Group. "If something goes wrong, it's going to be the state that has to be accountable for this."
Even if the bill passes, Norton said fees would be collected on many other types of radioactive materials.
The cobalt-60 shipments could become targets of terrorists to use to create a so-called "dirty bomb," Janairo said.
Norton said such fears are unfounded because the containers weigh several tons and moving them requires a crane.
The bill is now in the House Rules Committee. If passed, it would go to the full House for debate.