LONG BEACH — This city does not have the legal authority to prohibit federal shipments of highly radioactive nuclear waste through its port, Mayor Ernie Kell said Tuesday.
"We will not challenge their authority on a legal basis," Kell said following a briefing of the City Council by City Atty. John Calhoun. "I don't think if they say they're coming through, we could interfere with interstate commerce."
Kell said, however, that the city does have the right to insist that the shipments are handled safely. "And I doubt very much that they can satisfy all of our concerns and fears," he said.
Calhoun declined comment on whether the city could stop shipments of spent fuel rods the U. S. Department of Energy wants to bring to Long Beach beginning in late March.
In a previous interview Calhoun had said, "I never concede that a case is on all fours until I'm absolutely convinced that it's on all fours."
'Very Limited Authority'
But City Councilman Tom Clark, who also attended Calhoun's Tuesday briefing, said: "There's no question that we have very limited authority. How limited remains to be seen."
Harbor commissioners, who also met with Calhoun this week, said they remained uncertain about their legal right to reject the nuclear cargo.
Citing public concern about safety, James McJunkin, port executive director, notified the Energy Department two weeks ago that he would not allow 18 shipments of used fuel from an experimental nuclear reactor in Taiwan to be unloaded here for trucking to South Carolina for reclamation.
McJunkin said city ordinances give the Long Beach the right to stop the cargo. He was backed by the City Council and the Harbor Commission.
Energy Department officials disagreed with the city's position, saying that they did not need local permission to bring the nuclear waste through the port. But they say they haven't yet decided whether to force the issue here.
Kell emphasized that the City Council continues to oppose the shipments. The mayor said he personally does not want the nuclear rods in Long Beach and doubted whether the Energy Department would force them through the city. To do so, he said, "would be a pretty blatant exercise of authority."
Meanwhile, city and port officials have agreed to meet with the Energy Department next week in a public session to discuss safety and technical aspects of the shipment plan. The meeting will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Harbor Department offices.
Federal officials have "wanted to come out and conduct these educational meetings," McJunkin said. "I think this meeting will emphasize the safety data."
"We need to get more information and see if maybe this is an issue we can reconcile," Clark said. "It has been very frustrating not knowing more about the specific proposal. The federal government has really been very secretive."
Even before Kell's comments about the city's legal position, there were indications that it would be difficult for the city-run port to refuse to unload the federal cargo.
Calhoun acknowledged in an interview on Friday that cities and states generally have been unsuccessful when challenging the federal law that governs transport of hazardous materials and preempts inconsistent state and local regulations.
Specifically, Calhoun said he was aware of an unsuccessful 1981 attempt by New York City and the State of New York to keep the Energy Department from shipping spent fuel rods from a Long Island laboratory through the streets of Manhattan.
In that case, local laws had prohibited the shipments through such a densely populated area. But they were eventually allowed under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, which was passed by Congress in 1981 to eliminate confusion caused by dozens of local and state statutes that controlled shipment of toxic wastes. New York City won in federal district court but lost on appeal, and the U. S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1984.
But Calhoun said there may be important differences between the New York case and the situation in Long Beach.
Concern Over Disruption
"One thing the port is extremely concerned about is the amount of disruption of the normal activity of the port and the city if this type of shipment does occur," Calhoun said.
McJunkin said disruption of port activity would seem likely if the shipments come through.
"Given the excitement and rejection of this by the community, we would certainly have to believe there would be sizable demonstrations," he said. "And if you look at the port, about 10 people could lay down on the freeway and the whole port would stop."
Disruption could come, too, if local longshoremen refuse to handle the nuclear cargo, McJunkin said. Local 13 of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union has asked its international unit to oppose the unloading of nuclear rods at any West Coast port.
"And certainly, the notoriety makes this a terrorist target," McJunkin said.