Los Angeles harbor officials say they turned aside a federal request to ship highly radioactive nuclear waste from Taiwan through the Port of Los Angeles eight months before the U.S. Department of Energy announced its plan to ship the cargo through the Port of Long Beach.
"We just told them that we felt there were other avenues for moving the cargo back to South Carolina, and they ought to explore more thoroughly the possibility of moving it directly by water (to the East Coast)," said Jack Wells, chief deputy executive director at the Port of Los Angeles.
Since the Energy Department's surprise announcement nine days ago that it would begin unloading fuel rods in Long Beach in late March, the plan has been criticized by civic and anti-nuclear groups and by Local 13 of the International Longshoremen's & Warehousemen's Union.
There has been strong public and governmental opposition to the plan in Washington state and Oregon since September, when it became known that federal officials were considering unloading the nuclear rods at the Port of Tacoma. Longshoremen in Seattle, reacting to reports that their port was also being considered, voted unanimously not to handle the cargo.
Port of Long Beach officials, still scrambling to gather more information about the federal shipment plan, said they were stunned again Thursday to learn that Los Angeles had given the same proposal a cold shoulder last May.
"This is the first I've heard of it," said James McJunkin, port executive director in Long Beach. "And I share (Wells') concerns completely. We don't want to appear cold and callous. Public interest is of great concern to us."
McJunkin said he did not know if Los Angeles' decision would be a factor when Long Beach officials decide soon whether to grant a permit to allow the rods to be unloaded here.
However, port officials said they do not know if Long Beach can stop the federal shipments. That question is being researched, said McJunkin.
L. L. Turner, chief of the Transportation Branch of the Department of Energy's reprocessing plant in South Carolina, said he was not certain, but he believed that a local port could not
Must Apply for Permits
His department must apply for port permits to unload a few days before each shipment arrives, Turner said, "but it's a routine matter."
McJunkin disagreed. "Permits to unload are routinely requested for dangerous articles," he said. "But we get requests for unloading high explosives, and we routinely deny them."
Federal officials say that the nuclear rods--transported in steel and lead casks--are highly radioactive, but not explosive. No cask has ever released radioactivity during shipment, they said.
The rods are being returned to this country to limit access to nuclear material from which weapons can be made, officials said. The reclaimed plutonium from the fuel rods will not be used to make weapons, they said.
The Department of Energy's shipment of rods has never been legally challenged, Turner said.
"For some years, several hundred have come through the East Coast (ports) without any problem," said Turner. Many such shipments have also been unloaded for years at ports in Oakland and Portland without protest, he said.
Federal officials had said previously that they chose Long Beach for the shipments because good year-round weather along a southern route means a safer trip; the distance from here to South Carolina is shorter than from the Northwest, and shipment overland, rather than through the Panama Canal, makes sense because it cuts travel time in half.
Another factor was that all shipping companies that serve the East Coast from the Orient dock in Japan. Japan does not allow ships with nuclear cargo in its ports.
But Turner said that the most important reason Long Beach--rather than Los Angeles or Tacoma--is the Energy Department's final choice is that a shipping line serving Long Beach has agreed to carry the nuclear cargo.
The Hyundai Merchant Marine America Inc., which docks in Long Beach, signed a contract about 10 days ago, Turner said. Hyundai also ships cargo to Tacoma, he said, but safety and cost considerations led to the selection of Long Beach.