It's good to keep your finger on the pulse of nuclear waste shipping; it's nasty stuff. So it's encouraging that, in the UK at least, you can now track freight trains carrying "flasks" of the toxic sludge away from Britain's nuclear power stations with this handy Twitter bot.
Created by scientists Matt Allinson and Keir Little, the bot live tweets Britain's radiated slurry moving to and from nuclear waste storage facility Sellafield using data drawn from RealTimeTrains—a website that displays live running information for the British railway network.
While it's unnerving to realise that toxic nuclear waste is passing right through some of the most populated areas of the UK, Allinson and Keir aren't doing this to make a political statement on nuclear waste, and are keen to point out it's not really that dangerous.
"I know it sounds difficult to believe and Keir and I have discussed this a lot but we don't have a nuclear agenda with this, we're just in it for the trains," Allinson told me in an email.
Little added, "It's a web scraper for realtimetrains.co.uk, which takes the extremely-technical-and-opaque National Rail data and makes it human-readable."
As Allinson explained, the containers that carry nuclear waste, known as flasks, are designed to practically indestructible—authorities have even rammed high speed trains into them. Campaigners argue that if a flask were to leak, however, any nearby residents would be hit with dangerous levels of radiation.
"Our main agenda is that these are interesting freight trains and we're interested in interesting transport," he said. "The software can easily be ported to other interesting trains, like Mail Rail trains, and might even be portable to things like track inspection, or weed killing trains with a bit of effort."
I asked the duo what kind we can learn about Britain's nuclear waste through this project. Although there's no long-term data about waste movements by rail just yet, Allinson said that the most rail traffic at the moment is coming from the Wylfa nuclear power station in Anglesey, Wales, which was decommissioned in 2015. "So presumably the decommissioning is producing a lot of waste that needs processing," Allinson said.
Though they've not had any of Britain's infamous trainspotters contact them yet, Allinson said a few friends who follow the bot are keen to spot the trains coming from Dungeness power station that pass right over Brixton high street—a highly-populated area of London that's not too far from my own home. Maybe I'll try and spot one myself.
"I think we focused on Nuclear Trains first because, let's be honest, for most people they're more interesting that weed killing trains, and it's nice for people to be interested in your projects," said Allinson.
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