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U.S. Department of Energy Sued Over Plans to Truck Plutonium Across the Western US in Unsafe Containers

Shipment routes would include major population centers
February 13, 2002
Livermore, CA —

At a news conference held today at the fence line of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, community groups and environmentalists announced the filing of a major environmental lawsuit challenging a Dept. of Energy (DOE) plan to truck plutonium from Rocky Flats, Colorado to the Bay Area's Livermore Lab in containers that cannot be certified as safe.

Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment), represented by attorneys with Earthjustice, filed a complaint in federal court in San Francisco detailing how Rocky Flat's plutonium is slated be shipped to Livermore in 45-gallon "DT-22" containers that DOE documents acknowledge do not satisfy applicable safety regulations. The containers cannot pass a "crush test," which is mandatory for such shipments under Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations. Moreover, documents obtained by Tri-Valley CAREs disclose that the container's manufacturer apprised DOE of this fact.

DOE's plan to put these containers on trucks out on the Interstate highways, which run through many populated areas between Colorado and California, is raising concern throughout the West. According to DOE sources, the surplus plutonium parts are scheduled to be trucked in DT-22s to Livermore Laboratory in the spring or early summer of 2002. Once in Livermore, the plutonium parts will undergo high-temperature processing. Some years hence, the plutonium is supposed to go back out on the road, some of it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico and some to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Documents obtained by plaintiffs and attorneys in the case show that DOE is hurrying to meet an "accelerated closure" plan for dealing with the mess it made at the old Rocky Flats weapons plant, located about 16 miles outside of Denver. "Speeding up the project to meet an arbitrary 2006 closure date would save the agency money, but at the expense of public safety along the shipment route and in my community," stated Marylia Kelley, executive director of the Livermore-based Tri-Valley CAREs.

"First, the DOE improperly granted itself a 'national security exemption' from NRC regulations, so that it can more cheaply truck decades-old, surplus plutonium parts in containers that cannot be certified safe in crush scenarios. Then, DOE compounded its egregious violation of law and agency discretionary powers by neglecting to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the basic environmental statute of the land," explained Trent Orr, an attorney with Earthjustice.

The lawsuit is being filed under NEPA, and calls on DOE to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposal. An EIS, say plaintiffs and their attorneys, is needed to analyze the risks posed to communities along the route in case of an accident. Further, the law requires an EIS to contain a comprehensive "alternatives analysis," i.e., outlining other options for the plutonium, and include the public in decision-making through hearings and comment periods.

Plaintiffs and attorneys noted that there are multiple alternatives that were dismissed out of hand by DOE -- without benefit of NEPA analysis – as too expensive or time-consuming. They include but are not limited to:

* Cutting the material to fit into safer containers for transport.

* Processing the material on-site at Rocky Flats, and storing it there.

* Sending portions of the material from Rocky Flats directly to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, rather than to California first then across the Southwest to New Mexico.

* Sending the recovered plutonium directly to Savannah River, SC, rather than to California first then across the country to Savannah River.

* Processing the material at one of several DOE sites not within urban boundaries, if careful analysis showed this to be safe.

Citing the potential hazard of an accident, Marvin Resnikoff, an expert in radioactive transport issues, said, "These DT-22 containers cannot withstand all credible highway accidents. It makes no sense to transport plutonium in unsafe containers to Lawrence Livermore, process the plutonium, then transport it to other government facilities in New Mexico and South Carolina. All this transportation maximizes the risk of a transportation accident."

"Plutonium presents an extreme health hazard to workers who handle it and to the public," explained Marion Fulk, a retired Livermore Laboratory physicist with five decades of experience studying plutonium and other radioactive elements. "A tenth micron-sized particle of plutonium, once in the body, is enough to cause cancer or other health problems," Fulk continued. "New scientific studies show a wide range of negative health outcomes associated with radiation doses that authorities believed to be safe in years past. If we must err, we must err on the side of caution," he concluded.

"What we have here is an agency ignoring rules to get a job done quickly," agreed attorney Orr. "While that may save the DOE some money, it might not be the safest way to solve the problem."

Moreover, the shipments could pose a national security issue, said Kelley. "After the tragedy of September 11th, the DOE temporarily halted nuclear waste shipments knowing they pose an attractive target for terrorists. What assurances do we have that these shipments will now be secure?"

"Cleaning up the remnants of the Cold War is a worthy and difficult project, but communities should not be endangered in the name of expediency," Kelley concluded.

 

Contacts

Trent Orr, Earthjustice, 415-206-0898

Marylia Kelley, Tri-Valley CAREs, 925-443-7148

Tom Marshall, RMPJC, 303-444-6981

Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, RWMA, 212-620-0526

Marion Fulk, LLNL, retired, 925-443-3575

About Earthjustice

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