Should we know about nuke terror security?

By Ad Crable, Lancaster New Era

Published: Apr 21, 2004 5:26 PM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - A federal lawsuit in California could determine whether Lancaster County residents and officials have more say and knowledge concerning security at two nearby nuclear plants and radioactive waste scheduled to be shipped through the county.

Later this summer, a federal appeals court in San Francisco will hear a lawsuit that challenges the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's refusal to consider the impact of a terrorist attack on above-ground storage of spent nuclear fuel at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.

The NRC is being taken to court by the Mothers for Peace anti-nuclear group and the Sierra Club, which are fighting against the cask storage.

The NRC ruled a terrorist attack on the nuclear plant is so remote that it doesn't have to hold public hearings, listen to advice from local officials or determine the environmental impact of a successful assault on the highly radioactive waste to be stored on the site.

The case has quickly taken on nationwide implications. Attorneys general in California, Massachusetts, Utah and Washington have joined the fight for more disclosure of what a terrorist attack could mean for nuclear plants in their own back yards.

Three Mile Island Alert, a local safe-energy group, is advising Mothers for Peace and has given the group money.

"This lawsuit is an investment in our future,'' said Eric Epstein, head of TMI Alert, referring to the quest for more disclosure of terrorism and waste-storage issues at the TMI nuclear plant in Dauphin County and the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in York County.

"Our community has a right to participate in decisions that affect our future. We need to strike a balance between security and a closed system that excludes input from the general public,'' Epstein said.

In 2001, five months before Sept. 11, TMI Alert sued the U.S. Department of Energy in an attempt to get the owners of the Peach Bottom nuclear plant to do a thorough environmental impact statement on the effects of above-ground waste storage on the surrounding community. The request was denied.

Epstein and others decry what they call a cloak of secrecy that the NRC has operated under since Sept. 11, 2001.

The public and local governments have a right to know more about how well nuclear plants are protected and what could happen if a terrorism attack is successful, they say.

The lawsuit seeking more public disclosure is especially relevant to Pennsylvania, which has five nuclear plants and is close to a concentration of nuclear plants in the northeast.

Moreover, when the first national repository for spent fuel opens in Nevada, presumably in 2010, preliminary shipping routes call for hundreds of trains and trucks to pass through Lancaster County.

Experts say the lawsuit may determine how much oversight state and local governments may have in the shipments.

"Many states have nuclear power plants, and many will have shipments of nuclear waste through their states. We have an obligation to ensure that our citizens are protected and federal government follows the law,'' said David Mears, senior assistant attorney general for Washington state.

In the Diablo Canyon case, the NRC cited rules that reserve the authority to regulate security and radiation health issues to the federal government. The NRC has said hearings and meetings with officials would only lead to the possibility of a heightened security risk by revealing details of security precautions.

But Epstein said the argument does not hold water. He said TMI Alert has been signing confidentiality agreements with the NRC for 25 years.

In the Diablo Canyon fuel-storage review process, the NRC ruled it did not have to do an environmental analysis on the fallout from a terrorism attack because such an attack "was speculative and simply too far removed from the natural or expected consequences of agency action to require a study.'' But in a brief filed in the case, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer countered, "licensing any nuclear facility -- whether a reactor, a spent fuel pool, or a dry cask spent fuel storage facility -- near a community both makes the community a more likely terrorist target and makes the consequences of a successful terrorist attack far more devastating to the community.''

Lockyer maintains that under the National Environmental Policy Act, a court can require the NRC to conduct an analysis of terror risks posed by a planned project if there is a substantial question as to whether it would have a significant effect on the environment, either by making a terrorist assault more likely or by increasing the consequences of such an attack.