LONG BEACH — In an apparently precedent-setting decision, a federal judge has ruled that the Department of Energy must assess the potential environmental impact of shipments of radioactive nuclear waste before they can be routed through Long Beach or two other West Coast ports.
The ruling could end the federal government's effort to ship used nuclear fuel rods from Taiwan to Long Beach to be trucked to South Carolina for reclamation, local harbor officials said.
"Based on this, I don't think we'll hear any more from them. It'll take them three years to come up with an environmental impact report that's acceptable to everyone and, by then, the Taiwan rods will all be moved," said James McJunkin, executive director of the Port of Long Beach.
But principals in the federal court case said that the ruling by District Judge Jack Tanner in Tacoma, Wash., left some questions unanswered.
And an Energy Department spokesman said last week that the federal government still might ship the fuel rods through Long Beach or designated backup ports in Oakland and Seattle. That decision could be based in part on the extent of the study required by Tanner, said department spokesman Jack Vandenberg.
Tanner found that a Seattle environmental group was correct in arguing that federal law requires an analysis of the effect fuel rod shipments could have on a specific port.
But in his brief ruling from the bench, the judge did not say whether he intends to require a full environmental impact study, which often involves new research, or a much less detailed environmental assessment, which would only indicate whether a more complete study is needed. A written clarification is expected within a few days, attorneys said.
'A Big Victory'
"Either way, this is a big victory on our most important claim," said Rodney Brown, legal counsel for the Seattle-based Inland Waters Coalition. "This is the first case where the DOE has ever been required to do any type of environmental study for any specific shipments."
California Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Durbin, who argued in support of the Seattle coalition, agreed that Tanner's ruling breaks new legal ground and probably will require study of the maritime transport of nuclear fuel rods.
"We want to know what would happen if one of those casks gets lost at sea. And no one has looked at what would happen if there was a shipboard fire," she said.
"We are not arguing that it is in any way likely that there will be a release of nuclear materials, but if there were, the results could be so disastrous that it makes sense to do some advance consideration of what can happen," Durbin said.
Durbin and Brown said they expect the Energy Department to appeal Tanner's decision.
Wait for Written Ruling
Justice Department attorney Ann Peterson, who represents the Department of Energy, said she would not comment on Tanner's ruling until it is in writing. Nor would she comment on her arguments before Tanner.
According to plaintiffs' attorneys, federal lawyers argued unsuccessfully that two existing studies of nuclear waste shipments meet federal environmental impact requirements. A more specific study is not needed for each destination, they argued, because the probability of an accident that would harm the public is infinitesimally low.
They also maintained that the case should not be decided in a federal court because receipt of used nuclear fuel is a foreign policy question that should be decided only by the President, Durbin said.
Tanner's ruling follows a year of local and state protest--first in Washington state and then in California--about Department of Energy plans to bring 18 shipments of spent nuclear fuel from a Taiwanese experimental reactor through a West Coast port. By unloading the cargo in the West and trucking it to a South Carolina reprocessing plant, instead of shipping it through the Panama Canal, the government would cut transportation time in half and slash costs, it argued.
Change in Location
After opposition mounted in the Pacific Northwest, the department suddenly announced in January that the shipments would begin arriving in Long Beach by March.
But, faced with stiff local opposition and the Inland Waters Coalition lawsuit, the Energy Department in July rerouted the first of the 18 shipments through the Panama Canal to Portsmouth, Va., a frequent destination for spent rods from Europe.
None of the other shipments have left Taiwan, and the agency has not decided where those shipments should enter the United States, department spokesman Jack Vandenberg said last week.
It Might Be Short
Brown said that if Tanner requires only an environmental assessment, not a full environmental impact report, the document might not be more than 10 pages and probably would glean its information from existing studies.
"They often are pretty cursory," he said. "Theoretically, it's supposed to look at all the potential problems and possible mitigations, but it's only a very brief document."
Federal officials say safety concerns are unsupported by experience. Fuel rods are highly radioactive but not explosive, and no radioactive material has ever been released during more than 6,000 rod shipments in the United States, they have said.
Fuel rods are returned to this country for reprocessing to limit access to nuclear material from which weapons can be made, federal officials have said. The reclaimed plutonium is not used to make weapons, they have said.