SALEM, N.J. -- Anti-nuclear activist Kevin Kamps draws curious looks, a few honks and smiles, and the occasional middle finger as he hauls a 1,000-pound mock nuclear waste cask emblazoned with the words "Mobile Chernobyl" across U.S. highways.
Kamps rolls the rig to a stop at power plants and protests, town councils and community colleges -- anywhere he can get an audience. His message: In 10 years the federal government plans to ship deadly radioactive nuclear waste through the nation's back yards to Nevada.
Kamps was on a New York-to-Wisconsin trip last month when he stopped to speak at a meeting of the township committee in Lower Alloways Creek, N.J., home to three nuclear reactors. Standing in front of the town panel, Kamps outlined the risks of the plan to ship highly radioactive waste from the nearby Salem and Hope Creek reactors nearly 2,500 miles to Yucca Mountain.
When Kamps mentioned Nevada's opposition to the plan, one committee member rolled her eyes.
"That made me think of the Pledge of Allegiance we said earlier at the meeting, 'One nation, under God, indivisible,' " Kamps said later. "It seems like nuclear waste is very divisive. It's kind of like: Indivisible, except when it comes to nuclear waste. Then it's New Jersey versus Nevada."
Welcome to an increasingly hostile front -- America's roadways in faraway cities and states -- in the battle waged by Nevada leaders and environmental groups to stop any plans to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
Politicians, led by Gov. Kenny Guinn, teamed with a newly mobilized army of high-finance casino executives and low-budget environmentalists such as Kamps, are now mounting what they say will be an unprecedented public relations offensive to convince "transportation route" states that the Yucca plan is dangerous for everyone -- not just Nevada.
"This is going to be a political and marketing campaign unlike any the DOE has ever seen," said Stephen Cloobeck, a Las Vegas executive who is organizing an anti-Yucca campaign among business leaders.
Nevada has always had a hard time winning sympathy from officials in other states when it comes to the Yucca Mountain. Congress launched the plan in 1987, designating the desert site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas as the best place to bury 77,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste. The Energy Department has spent about $7 billion studying the site and is preparing to make a recommendation to President Bush later this year.
Leaders in distant states, including their representatives in Congress, are eager to get rid of the highly radioactive spent-uranium fuel rods now piling up at their plants.
But one argument sometimes gets their attention: If Yucca opens as scheduled by 2010, highly radioactive nuclear waste will have to be transported to Nevada across 43 states -- roughly 40,000 shipments over 38 years, according to one DOE scenario.
"For many people, this is the first time they are hearing that they live on the transportation routes," Kamps said, as he drove along U.S. Highway 9 in New Jersey. "We're doing the federal agencies' job for them."
In Las Vegas Cloobeck this year launched the Save Nevada coalition, which he said includes "CEOs from every major company in this town." Cloobeck, Diamond Resorts International president, intends to use the political muscle of the gambling industry to hammer several messages nationwide: Nuclear waste shipments are dangerous, threaten property values and stick taxpayers with accident liability.
Save Nevada's first strike could be prominent advertisements in national newspapers this fall, Cloobeck said. High-powered casino executives are ready "at a moment's notice" to launch a lobbying campaign in Congress, governors' mansions and city halls nationwide, he said.
"The Hill is going to get absolutely barraged," Cloobeck said.
Guinn also plans to be a high-profile spokesman for the dangers of waste shipments. This year the Nevada Legislature gave Guinn money for the first time to fight Yucca, and he plans to use about $1 million on a waste-transportation public relations campaign, Bob Loux, Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects director, said. The governor, working with Cloobeck, plans to raise more in private funds, Loux said.
Guinn already is bending the ear of other governors, spokesman Jack Finn said.
"The word is getting out," Finn said.
The transportation issue promises to heat up in Congress, too, as lawmakers continue to mull the Yucca plan.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., last month introduced legislation to pressure the DOE to finalize and publicize the routes. Berkley's amendment failed, despite her plea on the House floor, "This is a right-to-know issue, and the DOE's feet should be held to the fire."
But Nevada lawmakers battle influential nuclear-power lobbyists, Berkley said.
"If you have a nuclear reactor in your district, you are under a lot of pressure from the nuclear industry," Berkley said in an interview. "If you don't, you come to the realization that nuclear waste will be traveling through your major city, and all of a sudden you have a change of heart."
Since the nation began building power plants, roughly 3,000 shipments of high-level nuclear waste, mostly from defense projects and research reactors, have traveled U.S. highways and rails.
As of 1996, 72 "incidents" were reported, mostly minor contamination of casks and trucks, according to the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects. Eight traffic "accidents" have been reported, a DOE spokesman said. None resulted in radiation-related injury, according to the DOE.
If Yucca were completed, accident risks would skyrocket with the number of shipments, Kamps argued.
But a host of nuclear experts say shipping nuclear waste is safe, mostly because the casks are virtually accident-proof.
"People need to look at the scientific facts instead of the conjecture that is put on the table for purely political purposes," said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the industry's top lobby group, the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Edlow International Co., which potentially stands to profit from Yucca Mountain transportation contracts, has safely handled hundreds of high-level shipments since 1963, President Jack Edlow said.
Shipping spent nuclear fuel is a careful science, Edlow said. Shipments roll on specially designed trailers pulled by cabs with two drivers to keep the shipment moving at all times. Routes are carefully planned to avoid bad weather and populated areas, and sometimes armed off-duty police or for-hire security companies escort the drivers through urban areas. He added that dispatchers track the trucks with global-positioning systems.
"The public should know that this has been going on safely on a monthly basis for 40 years," Edlow said. "We are just as concerned about our families as anyone else. We want the shipments to arrive safely."
High-tech steel casks, lined with radiation shields, usually lead, nearly guarantee radiation would not leak in an accident, said nuclear engineer Dale Klein, now an administrator at the University of Texas and a waste-transportation expert. He served on a congressional commission that examined waste-transportation issues in the late 1980s.
"These casks are so robust that the only risk that ends up resulting from a (nuclear waste) shipment is that you have another truck on the highway," Klein said.
Although critics strongly disagree, pro-Yucca officials say tests conducted at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico proved the casks could survive high-impact crashes, fire, falls, puncture risks and water submersion.
Trucks hauling nuclear waste are safer than any other truck on the highway, said Bob Jefferson, a nuclear engineer who oversaw some of the high-profile fire and impact tests conducted at Sandia in the 1970s and 1980s.
"You can drive a gas tanker truck in this country that you could poke a hole in with a pick," Jefferson said. 'But the (nuclear waste truck) is the safest thing on the highway. They've paid more attention to its packaging, its driver and its rig than anything else. It has good brakes, good tires and good drivers."
Yucca foes often fault several widely publicized Sandia tests, including ones in which casks were burned and struck by trains.
But the purpose of the tests was not to prove that the casks were safe, Jefferson said. It was to prove that scientists had the ability to correctly calculate what would happen in an accident.
"In each case, the results were precisely what we predicted," Jefferson, now retired in New Mexico, said. That kind of assurance allows scientists to envision countless accident scenarios and test them without full-scale tests, he said.
Nuclear waste casks are "the most rigorous containers that exist in the world," said Robert Jones, a nuclear and mechanical engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and is now an industry consultant in Los Gatos, Calif.
Jones objects to the slogan that Kamps has splashed on his mock nuclear waste cask.
"The phrase 'Mobile Chernobyl' kind of just rolls off one's tongue, but it's a catch phrase that couldn't be more wrong," said Jones, a nuclear consultant and an expert in complex cask constructions. "With this 'Sky is falling' mentality, our feeling is: Come on out and take a look. We are extremely open to scrutiny."
Kamps, 32, has seen Chernobyl. He met his wife, Gabriela, 27, on a monthslong anti-nuke march from Belgium to Moscow. In the states, they later spent two years running a small program that brought Chernobyl children to America for medical care.
"We met thousands of people whose lives were changed forever by Chernobyl," Kamps said. "When we use the slogan 'Mobile Chernobyl,' it's not done lightly."
Kamps runs a low-budget operation.
Gabriela, a photography student, travels with him when she can. They munch tortilla chips and eat out of a cooler stocked with fruit, juice and soy milk. The couple gratefully accepts meals and a bed from local activists, or they camp out rather than stay in hotels.
After a rainy, mostly sleepless night last month, they stuffed a soggy tent and water-logged anti-nuke literature into the rented Ford Expedition that hauls the cask and its 2,000-pound trailer, plus the 8-by-18 cask.
Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based anti-nuclear activist group, pays for Kamps' trips and part of his salary from a $90,000 grant from Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects. (The grant money comes to the agency from the state -- not Congress, Loux said.) NIRS stretches the money thin on numerous projects and trips, director Michael Mariotte said.
Kamps stopped at both nuclear power plants in New Jersey during his trip through the state. He met with a tough audience -- many people living around nuclear plants rely on plant jobs.
At one protest on a busy road near the Oyster Creek plant, which drew four local reporters but few others, local activist Edith Gbur was pelted with an egg from a passing car.
"People do not want the waste in their back yard, but they think it's OK to ship it somewhere else," Gbur said.
On the other side of the state in Lower Alloways Creek, near the Hope Creek and Salem I and II reactors, local activist Norm Cohen also finds that people know little about Yucca Mountain and the possibility of hauling waste to the desert.
"They might think about it a little if you talk to them, and generally their view is: Get the crap out of here," said Cohen, local leader of an anti-plant campaign called Unplug Salem. "Our view is shut the plant down. Don't produce the stuff anymore."
That's a tough sell in this area. Public Service Electric and Gas Co.'s three reactors create 2,250 jobs and forked over $37.6 million in taxes in 1998 to local governments, plus $1.3 million in donations to regional charities.
Many locals simply don't think about the nearby nuclear plants at all, Lower Alloways Creek, N.J., Township committee member Ellen Pompper said.
"We've lived a long time with that plant," Pompper said. "Most of the time we hardly notice it is running. We feel very safe about that (plant)."
Plant officials have not yet established a procedure for one day removing spent nuclear fuel from the plant and loading in casks for long-distance shipping, Skip Sindoni, PSEG spokesman, said.
"We respect his right to have an opinion," Sindoni said of Kamps' general criticism of nuclear power and the dangers of storing and shipping waste. "We remain confident in the industry's ability to handle waste safely."
After the meeting in Lower Alloways Creek, Kamps plopped down behind the wheel of his rental Ford. It was about 9 p.m. and time to seek out the night's crash pad: a Quaker church basement.
Kamps plans more trips this summer. First he must return to Michigan this week to face charges for trespassing at a nuclear plant -- his third offense there. Kamps faces a few days in jail, but said he'll milk that for publicity.
The Michigan native and a friend built the 8-by-18 cask in 1998 out of scrap metal from a General Motors plant. Kamps hands out literature anywhere, including tollbooths and gasoline stations. He tries out a little nuclear waste humor at one station, asking the attendant to "fill it up" with plutonium. The attendant looks confused.
Kamps still loves to watch people's reactions.
"It's funny," he said, glancing in the rearview mirror at a passing car as he drove another stretch of Jersey roadway. "First they look at the cask. Then they look at us -- Who are these people?"