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U.S. Judge Orders Lengthy Study of Fuel Rod Impact

October 05, 1986|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

Elaborating on a previous decision, a federal judge has ruled that the Department of Energy must fully assess the potential environmental impact of radioactive nuclear waste shipments before they come through Long Beach or two other West Coast ports.

U.S. District Judge Jack E. Tanner of Tacoma, Wash., ruled in mid-September that the government could not ship used nuclear fuel rods from Taiwan through the three ports to the East Coast without an environmental assessment of some sort.

But it was not until last week that the judge--in a written elaboration of his brief oral ruling--said he would require a full environmental impact statement, rather than a much less detailed environmental assessment.

Time-Consuming Process

It probably would take years to conduct a full environmental statement compared to months for an assessment, spokesmen on both sides of the case have said.

That additional time should end government efforts to bring the Taiwanese rods through Long Beach or designated backup ports in Oakland and Seattle, said James McJunkin, executive director of the Port of Long Beach.

"We can quit worrying about those fuel rods," McJunkin said. He estimates that it will take at least four years to complete the environmental review required by Tanner.

Jack Vandenberg, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, which last January announced 18 fuel-rod shipments for Long Beach, said federal attorneys had not decided whether to appeal Tanner's decision.

A final decision on whether to try to bring the fuel rods to Long Beach to be trucked to South Carolina for reclamation is probably dependent upon the outcome of this case, said Vandenberg. "Everything at this point seems to be hinged on this case," he said.

In his Sept. 30 ruling, Tanner found that a Seattle environmental group was correct in arguing that federal law requires a detailed analysis of the effect fuel rod shipments could have on a specific port.

He also ordered the Department of Energy to post in the Federal Register a "reasonable" notice of the fuel rod shipments. The department's notice for the proposed Long Beach shipments did not include point of origin, cargo destination or say how much nuclear waste is being shipped, said California Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Durbin.

Durbin, who argued in support of the Seattle group, said Tanner's ruling was the first in the nation to require an environmental study of fuel rod shipments.

"This precedent may change the entire way the Department of Energy does business in terms of transportation of spent fuel rods," she said. "The project may still go ahead as originally planned, but if it does we'll be much better prepared to handle anything that may happen because we'll have all the facts."

Federal attorneys have argued 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.

Less Costly Route

Federal officials have favored shipments from the Orient to the West Coast, because trucking the material to a South Carolina reprocessing plant--instead of shipping it through the Panama Canal--would cut transportation time in half and slash costs, they said.

The first of the 18 shipments was sent in July through the Panama Canal to Portsmouth, Va., a frequent destination for spent rods from Europe. The other 17 shipments have not left their port of origin, said Vandenberg.

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.

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