Nuclear Regulatory Commission Ignores Threats to Public from Proposed Irradiator at Airport, Experts Warn

Public has opportunity to weigh in at February 1 hearing


David Henkin, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436

Experts reviewing the proposal to locate a nuclear irradiator at Honolulu International Airport have rejected as baseless the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s claim the public would be safe from airplane crashes at the facility, which would be located next to active runways.  They have also criticized the NRC for ignoring threats to the public from terrorist attack and the increased cancer risk associated with eating irradiated food. The public has an opportunity to express its views on the irradiator at a February 1, 2007 public hearing on the draft environmental assessment (EA), which the NRC prepared pursuant to a March 2006 settlement agreement with community group Concerned Citizens of Honolulu (represented by Earthjustice). The NRC will also accept written comment until February 8, 2007.

The draft EA inaccurately downplays the likelihood of an aviation accident at the irradiator because it uses data that are over thirty-years old and fails to consider that “air crash data for [Honolulu airport] is higher than the national average,” noted Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, a physicist at Radioactive Waste Management Associates. Using the correct data, Dr. Resnikoff concluded the annual risk of an airplane hitting the proposed Pa’ina irradiator at more than 1 in 2,000. That is two and one-half times the risk the EA assumes and 500 times the crash probability the NRC customarily accepts. Dr. Resnikoff criticized the EA for refusing to look at alternatives involving moving the proposed irradiator a mere 10 miles away from active runways at the airport, which would reduce the risk of aviation accidents “by a factor of 1000.”

The public should take no comfort from the EA’s claim it has nothing to fear in the event an airplane strikes the irradiator, concluded Purdue University Professor of Structural Engineering Mete Sozen and Professor of Computer Science Christoph Hoffmann.  Using a computer simulation model commonly relied on by government laboratories, Professors Sozen and Hoffman found that “the effects of a plane crash on an industrial building housing a nuclear irradiator would be devastating.” The force of a crash or the associated “high-temperature conflagration” from burning fuel could damage the irradiator pool, “causing the water shielding the Cobalt-60 sources to drain out.”  In addition, “[f]lying debris could breach the [radioactive] source assembly or pool.” In all of these instances, Professors Sozen and Hoffman found that “radioactive Cobalt-60 could be introduced to the human environment.” They faulted the NRC for not analyzing these threats in the EA.

The EA also fails to discuss the potential for terrorist attack on the Pa’ina irradiator, which, according to Institute for Resource and Security Studies executive director Gordon Thompson, “might be especially attractive to attackers because of the proximity of military and symbolic targets including Hickam Air Force Base and Pearl Harbor.” 

“Only last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals told the NRC it has to examine terrorist threats before licensing nuclear facilities,” explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “So the NRC’s refusal to respond to the public’s concerns here is inexcusable.”

Likewise, the EA fails to discuss the public health threats associated with increasing the supply of irradiated food for human consumption, the primary purpose of the proposed irradiator. Recent studies have shown that eating irradiated food, such as the mangoes and papayas proposed for treatment at the Pa’ina irradiator, may promote colon cancer, noted Dr. William Au, Professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Dr. Au emphasized colon cancer is “a serious health problem in humans, causing approximately 60,000 deaths per year in the United States.”

“The EA concludes the irradiator’s economic benefits would be ‘small’ and the alleged reduction in invasive species would be not be significant,” noted Earthjustice’s Henkin. “While this project may be good for Pa’ina’s bottom line, given all the risks involved, it clearly is not good for the people of Hawai’i.”

The NRC is holding a public hearing to accept comments on its draft EA from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, February 1, 2007, at the Ala Moana Hotel, 410 Atkinson Drive, Honolulu. The NRC is also accepting written comments until February 8, 2007, which should be mailed to:  Chief, Rules Review and Directives Branch, Mail Stop T6-D59, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001, or emailed to:  Written comments should mention “Docket No. 030-36974.” 

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.