LONG BEACH — When the Department of Energy comes to town on Thursday, it will be armed with strong assurances for a hostile audience that the nuclear cargo it wants to ship through Long Beach is safe.
"There has never been an accident involving a cask licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission where there has been a release of radioactivity, and (that's) a remarkable safety record," said James Gaver, spokesman for the federal agency, who will be part of an eight-person team dispatched for the 2 p.m. public meeting.
The team will probably dust off calculations, which, they claim, show the chance of radioactive leakage from shipping casks is nearly infinitesimal.
Once in 300 Million Years
The Energy Department has previously argued there is a 1-in-3-billion probability that an accident involving such steel-and-lead casks would cause a radiation-related cancer. In a New York City case involving nuclear cargo similar to that which would come to Long Beach, federal officials estimated that a major accident or sabotage serious enough to cause deaths and extensive property damage would occur only once in 300 million years.
Opponents have argued that similar odds were also proffered before the near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979, in which radioactive gases escaped through the plant's venting system, and that the chance of a catastrophic accident increases with every mile nuclear waste is hauled.
Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist for the Sierra Club's Radioactive Waste Campaign, has said that government forecasts of nuclear accidents defy common sense. "Based on 40 years' experience, with what certainty do you think you can predict out 300 million years? I think the (chance of error) would be extremely large," he said.
The Department of Energy announced on Jan. 17 that it planned to move 18 shipments of spent, highly radioactive fuel rods from an experimental nuclear reactor in Taiwan to the Port of Long Beach. The rods would then be trucked to South Carolina for reclamation.
A week after the announcement--following emotional protests by civic and anti-nuclear groups and after learning that the Port of Los Angeles had rebuffed the same shipments last May--officials of the city-run port notified the Energy Department that public concern about safety was too strong to allow the shipments to be unloaded here.
Mayor Ernie Kell said last week that the city does not have the legal authority to stop the shipments, but that it does have the right to insist that the shipments are handled safely. In test cases in other states, the authority of the federal government over nuclear shipments has been upheld.
Kell and several members of the City Council and Harbor Commission have said they know too little about the shipments to judge their safety.
'An Open Mind'
"I don't feel I have enough information about that," Kell said. "I will listen with an open mind."
Councilman Warren Harwood said he did not think the City Council was "pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. I think the council's primary concern is that it wants to be totally knowledgeable and assured that these shipments are safe."
The council has a history of welcoming ships to the Long Beach Naval Station that could carry nuclear weapons. But Kell said the proposed shipments of nuclear waste are a "totally different issue. The Navy is for national defense, but there's absolutely no reason these shipments have to go through the port."
There has been a big difference, too, in advance warning from federal officials, Kell said. "When the Navy initially brought the ships in we were briefed long before the press release. I think the Department of Energy's handling of public relations has been clumsy at best."
The Thursday meeting at the Harbor Department building at 925 Harbor Plaza will begin with a presentation by the federal officials. The team will include representatives from the Energy Department in Washington and South Carolina, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation and private contractors working on the fuel shipment project, said Gaver, the Energy Department spokesman. He said the presentation will emphasize safety and the need to bring used nuclear fuel back to this country so it cannot be used by other countries to make weapons.
After the presentation, the federal officials will answer questions by representatives of the city, labor unions and other local agencies. Questions from the public will be allowed after that, a port spokesman said.
During the meeting, Gaver said, local officials will be assured that the 18 shipments--each with two 22-ton, 17-foot-long casks--will be inspected for radioactivity and leaks at their port of origin. Once in Long Beach, he said, the casks will be inspected by the Coast Guard, and local or state officials may also examine them. Armed guards will escort the cargo while in port, but not after it leaves, said another Energy Department spokesman, Bill Pearson.