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California and the West

Lungren Won't Try to Block Nuclear Waste

Environment: Attorney general refuses coastal panel request for legal challenge to shipment. The spent radioactive fuel is to arrive in Bay Area and travel across the state.

July 01, 1998|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Removing a final barrier to shipments of foreign nuclear waste through California, state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren has refused to file a lawsuit on behalf of the Coastal Commission challenging a federal plan to import the spent fuel.

The first of five shipments of highly radioactive nuclear waste is slated to arrive in the Bay Area under U.S. Coast Guard escort this month, then travel by train through densely populated cities and several narrow canyons before stopping at a federal storage site in Idaho.

Commission officials said the attorney general's office, which acts as legal counsel for the agency, gave the word Tuesday but offered no explanation. Lawyers representing the attorney general told commission leaders they would give their rationale at a meeting in a few days. The commission voted several weeks ago to pursue a lawsuit unless federal officials agreed to stop the shipments.

"I'm shocked and dismayed that our counsel would abandon the commission," said Peter Douglas, Coastal Commission executive director. "We don't have the resources to hire our own counsel, so I'm at a loss at this point what we can do."

Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for Lungren, said he was prohibited by attorney-client privilege from revealing why the attorney general decided against supporting the Coastal Commission's cause. The final decision on the matter rested with Lungren, Stutzman said.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Energy, which is shepherding the shipments, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

The Energy Department is trying to retrieve the spent fuel, which is the key ingredient in an atomic bomb, because of fears the dangerous material could fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations. Among the first shipments planned into the Bay Area's Concord Naval Weapons Station would be highly enriched uranium from research reactors in Korea and Indonesia, two international hot spots.

Coastal Commission officials contend they should have a chance to pass judgment on the shipments, since the cargo ship carrying the nuclear fuel will travel through California's territorial waters.

Federal energy officials, however, have refused the state agency's demands for review, saying the chances of a catastrophic accident that would result in a human fatality are a billion to one.

The shipments are actually nothing new, dating back more than four decades.

During the early 1950s, the Eisenhower administration launched its Atoms for Peace program, which supplied foreign nations with nuclear research reactors and fuel in exchange for a promise not to develop atomic weapons. Part of the deal, federal officials say, was that the United States would take back the spent fuel, and for decades the used uranium was spirited through U.S. ports under the cloak of secrecy.

That changed in the 1980s, as environmental groups that had learned of the imported nuclear waste called for environmental reviews and the Energy Department began lifting its cloak of secrecy. Between 1988 and 1994 the program ceased as the federal government conducted a formal analysis. The shipments into Charleston resumed in 1994.

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