The state of Virginia has become a major thoroughfare for the transportation of nuclear fuel waste in the country, a longtime practice that has now come under scrutiny by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

NRC staff members are reevaluating a route by which huge shipments of spent nuclear fuel are trucked from the Portsmouth, Va., harbor to a military plant in Savannah, Ga. They met earlier this week in Norfolk with state health anf police officials to outline new route-review and transportation regulations that go into effect in mid-July.

"We are currently looking at other ports closer to Savannah to see if they can handle the shipments," said Robert Burnett, director of NRC's division of safeguards. He said that the Norfolk-Portsmouth area is the first of five nuclear waste transmit routes in the country to be reexamined.

If the NRC decides that alternative routes are safer and can avoid heavily populated areas, then shipments through the Hampton Roads area may be scrapped, Burnett said.

The new waste transportation regulations - which will require shipments traveling through urban areas of more than 100,000 people to be accompanied by armed guards - are NRC's precautions against sabotage.

"I don't have any known threats, but we've gotten a report that our fuel containers may be vulnerable to sabotage," said Burnett.

He said he persuaded the NRC to revise its regulations for transporting nuclear waste after seeing a report that warned the huge 22-ton transport cannisters could be penetrated with an explosive charge, exposing hundreds of people to radioactive contamination.

The marine terminals at Portsmouth handle about 50 nuclear waste shipments a year. They arrive on ships from plants in Europe and are trucked to Savannah River nuclear plant in Georgia.

Selection of the transportation route from Portsmouth to Savannah has been left in the past to whichever private firm contracted to do the shipping, according to Burnett.

Under the new regulations, Burnett said the three private shipping firms that truck nuclear waste through the state will have to justify why they use one route over another.

Antinuclear groups have recently focused on the regulations as a way to raise broader questions about the safety of nuclear power.

"If those shipments are that dangerous, why should they go through any urban areas, even with armed escorts?" asked Fred Millar, a member of such group, the Potomac Alliance.

Millar's and other antinuclear groups are pressing for hearings on the new regulations and plan to challenge any decisions to transport waste materials through heavily populated areas.

Although Burnett argued that NRC's goal is to divert nuclear waste shipments to less dense areas, Millar said routes through Norfolk, Richmond and Northern Virginia are now commonly used.

Miller said he was disturbed by what he called NRC's "cops and robbers" approach to the safety of having nuclear waste trucked through the state. He said the risks of highway or train accidents - not saboteurs pose a greater danger to the transportation of nuclear cargo.

Millar said the new NRC regulations are meeting with great resistance from shipping firms and Hampton Roads harbor officials.

"But their claim that changing routes would prove too costly is a losing argument, and we're prepared to take them to court," Millar said, not noting that the NRC regulations dictate that safety considerations be the only factors in selecting transport routes.

The nuclear cargo shipments come from four research plants in Europe that buy nuclear fuel from the United States under an agreement that allows them to ship the waste back. The spent fuel is then transported to Savannah and recycled for use in the nuclear reactor there.