Lawsuit Challenges Cross-Country Plutonium Shipments

By Cat Lazaroff

LIVERMORE, California, February 13, 2002 (ENS) - A coalition of environmental and community groups filed suit today to stop the Department of Energy's plans to ship weapons grade plutonium from Rocky Flats, Colorado to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Critics of the plan say the shipping containers designated to carry the radioactive material cannot be certified as safe.


Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy (Photo courtesy LLNL)
At a news conference held today at the fence line of Lawrence Livermore, community groups and environmentalists announced the filing of a complaint arguing that the Energy Department (DOE) plans to ship plutonium in 45 gallon DT-22 containers that agency documents acknowledge do not satisfy applicable safety regulations.

The suit by Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment), filed by attorneys with Earthjustice, says the containers cannot pass a crush test, which is mandatory for such shipments under Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations. Documents obtained by Tri-Valley CAREs show that the container's manufacturer told the DOE the containers could not pass the test.

Surplus plutonium parts from the now mothballed Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant are scheduled to be trucked in DT-22s to Livermore Laboratory in the spring or early summer of 2002. The DOE's plan to ship the plutonium on interstate highways, which run through many populated areas between Colorado and California, is raising concern throughout the West.

Once in Livermore, the plutonium parts will undergo high temperature processing, and eventually be reshipped, some of it to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico and some to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

glove box

LLNL has developed a method of cutting open the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons destined for disposal. The plutonium is then extracted and converted to an oxide for permanent disposal (Photo courtesy LLNL)
"Plutonium presents an extreme health hazard to workers who handle it and to the public," said 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."

Tri-Valley CAREs says it has obtained documents show that the DOE is hurrying to meet an "accelerated closure" plan for dealing contamination 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," said Marylia Kelley, executive director of the Livermore based Tri-Valley CAREs.


Cleanup worker handles wet combustible radioactive plutonium residue at the Rocky Flats nuclear facility (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept of Energy)
The lawsuit, filed under the National Environmental Policy Act, calls on the DOE to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposed shipments. An EIS, say plaintiffs and their attorneys, is needed to analyze the risks posed to communities along the route in case of an accident.

The law requires an EIS to contain a comprehensive "alternatives analysis," outlining other options for the plutonium, and to include the public in decision making through hearings and comment periods.

"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," explained Trent Orr, an attorney with Earthjustice. "Then, DOE compounded its egregious violation of law and agency discretionary powers by neglecting to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the basic environmental statute of the land."

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


Repackaging radioactive salts at Rocky Flats (Photo courtesy U.S. Dept of Energy)
Earthjustice says that there are multiple alternatives to the truck shipments that were dismissed out of hand by the DOE - without benefit of NEPA analysis - as too expensive or time consuming. Among the options which the DOE discarded were:

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."


A container of radioactively contaminated wastes at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico (Photo courtesy WIPP)
The shipments could also pose a national security issue, said Tri-Valley CARE's 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.