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Tighter regulations must be in place before shipments of nuclear waste begin

Here’s what should be an easy one for Congress and the president:

Slow down the push to ship truckloads of radioactive nuclear waste over the Peace Bridge until authorities know exactly what they’re dealing with and are able to put into place measures necessary to thwart potential terrorists.

As News staff reporter T.J. Pignataro wrote recently, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to move the waste from a nuclear facility in Chalk River, Ont., to its Savannah River Site in South Carolina. After the trucks carrying thousands of gallons of radioactive waste cross the Peace Bridge, they would go through downtown Buffalo on the Niagara Thruway to the westbound Thruway, then pass Erie, Pa., on their way south. Shipments are expected weekly for more than a year.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, alarmed that the proposal could end up creating such an inviting target for terrorists, has sponsored a bill that will require federal Department of Homeland Security officials to assess the threat terrorists pose to the transport of hazardous materials.

It is astonishing that such a requirement was not part of the Department of Energy’s proposal. The need is obvious. As Higgins pointed out, “Terrorists and militant groups have expressed an interest in using highly dangerous weapons, especially those utilizing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear … materials.”

It should speak volumes that the House approved the bill recently in a 416-0 vote. While it should enjoy similar bipartisan support in the Senate, nothing in this Congress can be taken for granted.

Terrorists have demonstrated for decades their willingness to stop at nothing to inflict mass casualties on Americans. More recently, the sophisticated use of social media has created a new kind of attacker. These “lone wolf” terrorists look for easy targets and are difficult to stop.

Higgins’ measure would require Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis to consult with officials from Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Safety Administration. A “terrorism threat assessment” would then be assembled on transports of “chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological materials through land border crossings and in the U.S.”

Those threat assessments would have to be conducted within 90 days, and all findings would have to be shared with local, state and federal agencies concerned with public safety.

The House legislation should receive similarly solid approval by the Senate, followed by a swift signature from the president.