There are oversized loads, and then there are nuclear-sized loads.
The latter slowly snaked its way through rural eastern Nevada highways this month, in the form of a 1.47-million-pound decommissioned nuclear reactor pressure vessel, towed on a 384-tire trailer that was pushed and pulled by six heavy-duty trucks.
Traveling between five and 10 miles per hour and escorted by four Nevada Highway Patrol cars, the convoy departed on June 29 from an industrial park in North Las Vegas and arrived on July 14 at its final destination: a nuclear waste facility in northwest Utah owned by Salt Lake City-based nuclear decommissioning and decontamination company EnergySolutions.
“This project was a very complex undertaking that required approvals and/or coordination with over two dozen federal, state and local agencies and government entities,” said EnergySolutions projects director Todd Eiler in a company statement.
The vessel was the heaviest load to have ever traversed the state’s roadways, according to the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT).
NDOT spokesman Tony Illia said that the convoy did not travel on Interstate 15 or Interstate 80, instead weaving through a patchwork of less-trafficked roads: U.S. Route 93, Nevada State Route 318, and U.S. Route 6, as well as surface roads leading into Utah.
Passing motorists were likely to have been surprised by the sight of the nearly 40-foot-long cylindrical canister, but not harmed: according to Illia, the vessel emitted radiation at a rate of less than 0.1 millirem an hour, putting it 500 times below the legal limit set by the U.S. Department of Transportation. For comparison, a chest X-ray emits at least 100 times more radiation, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The vessel will permanently remain at the company’s waste facility in Clive, Utah, about 60 miles west of Salt Lake City, according to EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker. Final disposal will be complete early next week, he said.
Roads weren’t the only means of moving the vessel. Before transportation contractor Emmert International began its highway haul across the Silver State, the company shipped the vessel from Southern California Edison’s closed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in San Diego County, California, to the Apex Industrial Park in North Las Vegas using a 36-axle, 2.2-million-pound rail car via BNSF and Union Pacific rail lines.
The vessel held nuclear fuel at the first of SONGS’s three units from 1968 to 1992, at which point Southern California Edison retired the first unit. The utility permanently retired the rest of SONGS in 2013, after a radiation leak led the utility to discover advanced wear on the third unit’s steam generators.
Emmert International president Terry Emmert said in an interview with the Sierra Nevada Ally that his company had planned to move the vessel earlier in the year, when temperatures would peak only in the 70s. But the coronavirus pandemic complicated logistics, forcing his team to travel in the blistering July desert heat.
“It was a very rewarding project, as we had a great team effort from all of our employees in Portland and Dallas and Houston,” said Emmert, adding that the state agencies involved were instrumental to the project’s successful execution.
“We had winds as high as 50 miles an hour with sand blasting us and our equipment,” said Emmert, who added that the crew encountered rattlesnakes along the way. “These officers and employees of the state governmental agencies, during tough times, were out there giving it everything they had.”
Benjamin Payne is a freelance reporter and graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism. Support his work in the Ally.