LONG BEACH — As impassioned speakers pleaded with the Harbor Commission to block a federal plan to ship nuclear waste to Long Beach, union officials said Tuesday that longshoremen might 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. "Who wants nuclear waste running through their backyard?"
The union's executive committee will meet tonight to discuss the issue, Arian said.
Meanwhile, Long Beach harbor commissioners told representatives of several civic, peace and anti-nuclear groups 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 required permit to unload toxic materials here and that they do not expect to act on the plan soon.
Notified Friday Morning
Federal officials notified both Gov. George Deukmejian and port officials 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 will be returned to this country 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.
One woman, Therese Brady Martinez of Long Beach, lifted her young son, Robert, to the microphone. "I want the fish to live in the ocean," the boy said.
Steven Aftergood, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Committee to Bridge the Gap, said Southern California has a limited, 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 the 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.
Many speakers noted that the Department of Energy decided to bring the 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.
Federal officials have said that they finally chose Long Beach for the shipments because good weather makes the overland route safer, and the distance to the South Carolina reprocessing plant was longer from the Northwest. They want to transport the fuel rods overland, rather than through the Panama Canal, because that cuts the shipment time in half.
Another factor, they acknowledged, was that all shipping companies that serve the East Coast from the Orient also dock in Japan. Japan does not allow ships with nuclear cargo in its ports.
"If it's too dangerous for Seattle," said Helen Travis of the San Pedro-based Harbor Area Peace Committee, " . . . (then) we don't want any part of it."
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 (for questions) that you people have posed here today. We are not out for the fast buck."
Several other local and state officials, including Mayor Ernie Kell and a spokesman for Gov. Deukmejian, also said in interviews Tuesday that it was too soon to respond to the Energy Department proposal.
"We're studying the exact nature of their plans and the safety precautions they are undertaking," Deukmejian spokesman Kevin Brett said in Sacramento.
Council Seeks Report