Longshore union officials, responding this week to a federal plan to ship nuclear waste through the Port of Long Beach, said local dockworkers could join their counterparts in Seattle and refuse to unload the highly radioactive material.
"Our response has been pretty negative about handling this type of material," said David Arian, president of Local 13 of the International Longshoremen's & Warehousemen's Union, which serves the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports.
The union's executive committee will gather tonight in Wilmington to talk about the federal plan, Arian said.
'Just Make Announcements'
"Who wants nuclear waste running through their backyard?" he said. "The government should be sitting down with the people most closely affected, but they just make these announcements without telling anybody."
The federal plan, announced Friday, has already drawn opposition from a number of anti-nuclear, civic and peace groups. "If it's too dangerous for Seattle (then) we don't want any part of it," Helen Travis of the San Pedro-based Harbor Area Peace Committee told Long Beach harbor commissioners, who informally heard public comments on the proposal this week.
Travis was referring to the decision by the federal Department of Energy to bring nuclear shipments into the country through Long Beach, instead of ports in Seattle or Tacoma, in the face of strong public opposition in Washington state.
Longshoremen in Seattle voted unanimously on Jan. 9 not to handle the cargo, and Washington state officials have insisted on security precautions more stringent than federal standards.
Long Beach harbor commissioners told several activist groups on Tuesday that the port was just as surprised as the rest of the community by the Department of Energy's plan to begin shipping spent nuclear fuel rods here from Asia within two months.
Commissioners said the Department of Energy had not yet applied for a permit required to unload toxic materials at Long Beach, and said they do not expect to act on the plan soon.
Federal officials notified both Gov. George Deukmejian and port officials on Friday morning about their decision to move 18 shipments of the used fuel rods through the Port of Long Beach and then overland to a South Carolina reprocessing plant during the next two years.
The fuel is being returned to the United States to limit access to nuclear material from which weapons can be made, the officials said. The reclaimed plutonium from the fuel rods will not be used to make weapons, they said.
Though the issue was not on their Tuesday afternoon agenda, harbor commissioners listened as speaker after speaker said it would be unsafe to ship nuclear waste through densely populated Southern California.
Steven Aftergood, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Committee to Bridge the Gap, said Southern California has a short but unfortunate history of handling nuclear waste.
Aftergood, whose group claims credit for shutting down the UCLA nuclear reactor in 1984, said an incident in 1980 demonstrates that shipments of nuclear rods can be dangerous.
Radioactive Exposure Told
At that time, a driver of a truck taking used nuclear fuel rods to a Department of Energy reprocessing plant in Idaho left his designated route to pick up a girlfriend in downtown Los Angeles, Aftergood said. They spent a night in Las Vegas before delivering the rods, he said.
It turned out that a metal cask carrying the used nuclear rods exposed the driver and others to high levels of radioactivity because it had been exposed to radioactive cobalt while at the UCLA reactor, he said.
"The unexpected will happen," Aftergood warned.
Federal officials maintain that they they chose Long Beach for the shipments because the area's good weather makes the overland route safer, and because of the longer distance from the northwest to the South Carolina reprocessing plant. They contend that transporting the fuel rods overland, rather than through the Panama Canal, cuts the time of shipment in half.
Another factor, they acknowledged, was that all shipping companies that serve the East Coast from the Orient also dock in Japan, which will not allow ships with nuclear cargo in its ports.
Dr. Stewart Brown of Long Beach, reresenting the 1,500-member Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the shipments should not be allowed into Southern California, "one of the most densely populated land areas on earth. I don't think that would be a responsible act."
Harbor Commission President Louise DuVall assured the audience that the commission will not act on the Department of Energy plan until after formal public hearings.
"No one really has had time to do anything," said DuVall. "But the matter is being studied. . . . We are trying to get some of the answers (to questions) that you people have posed here today. We are not out for the fast buck."