Judge Declines Delaying Nuclear Shipments Through Western North Carolina

Published Thursday, February 9, 2017 at 1:50 pm

By Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press 

A federal judge ruled Thursday against a group seven of environmental advocacy organizations that hoped to prevent shipments of liquid nuclear waste from Canada to South Carolina, with a likely route through Western North Carolina.

The plaintiffs argued in filings and oral arguments before the Washington court on Jan. 18 that the U.S. Department of Energy should be required to submit a supplemental Environmental Impact Study to haul 6,000 gallons of highly enriched uranyl nitrate liquid from Chalk River, Ontario, to the Savannah River Site.

A portion of the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where nuclear waste shipped from Canada through the Carolinas would be stored. Department of Energy

A portion of the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where nuclear waste shipped from Canada through the Carolinas would be stored. Department of Energy

The federal agency had instead relied on older studies and analysis, which may have examined conditions slightly different from those involved with liquid waste transportation or relied on older science for their analysis, plaintiffs argued.

But U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan agreed with the Department of Energy and other defendants who said the requirements of the law were might be the study submitted.

Had the lawsuit succeeded, it could have led to a delay in the shipments, but might not have been effective in permanently blocking them. With Thursday’s decision, the shipments can now move forward. According to an article in the Buffalo News last year, those could start by this summer.

The actual route for the shipments is unknown and won’t be revealed publicly, per federal policy for nuclear shipments.

Although some opponents of the shipments have criticized the project for bringing materials from Canada into the U.S., the judge noted that the shipments would contain “U.S.-origin uranium” that was processed in Canada, in keeping with U.S. policy since the 1950s for providing nuclear fuel to other nations.

The judge acknowledged the differences between the current plan and those cited in the DOE’s earlier studies. A 1996 environmental impact study focused on loose powder rather than liquid. But the judge found other portions of the plan were not so different.

“Essentially all other aspects of the plan, including the source location, the use of trucks carrying casks over land, the potential routes used, and the storage at the Savannah River site are the same,” Chutkan said.

In 2013, when Canadian authorities informed DOE of their desire to ship waste in liquid form, DOE conducted sufficient analysis of liquid, including the transport of liquid that had been analyzed for other routes, so that a new environmental impact study was not warranted in this case, the judge said. DOE also added further analysis in support of this plan in 2015.

One problem for the environmental groups in the case was that the judge found she was not allowed to consider several declarations from scientific experts they submitted in their filings. She instead moved to strike this from the record. The judge found that the circumstances in this case did not allow her to consider the submission of materials that DOE did not review in making its decision.

“In the court’s view, these two declarations are more akin to conflicting views of specialists, for which the Supreme Court (has said that DOE) ‘must have discretion to rely on the reasonable opinions of its own qualified experts,’ “ Chutkan wrote.

“Because the declarations do not point to materials or evidence that plaintiffs allege DOE should have considered and do not provided any background insight into the agency’s decision-making process, the court will grant defendants’ motion to strike these declarations.”

Several environmental advocates who talked with Carolina Public Press about the situation in recent weeks described an effort to persuade Gov. Roy Cooper to speak out against the shipments. However, given the judge’s reasoning in striking outside opinions about the shipments, it seems unlikely that Cooper’s involvement would have influenced her decision.

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