An environmental law firm is praising a federal agency’s ruling Thursday for more information on a proposal to build a nuclear irradiator facility near Honolulu Airport.
David Henkin, staff attorney with Earthjustice, said the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision ensures Oahu residents will have more information about the nuclear facility before it is built.
But Michael Kohn, a representative of Pa’ina Hawai’i, a company that wants to build the $3.5 million irradiator, said the commission’s decision involves "nonmaterial" issues.
Kohn said major safety and environmental issues have already been addressed and that Thursday’s ruling does not delay the project, which he hopes will break ground this year.
The wrangling over the project dates back to October 2005, when Earthjustice, on behalf of Concerned Citizens of Honolulu, challenged the commission’s plan to approve the irradiator without an environmental review.
According to Thursday’s 57-page decision, the commission accepted Earthjustice’s claims that the alternative technologies must be considered as well as other locations.
"The commission ruled in our favor pretty much on every ground that they could," Henkin said.
Earthjustice attorneys want the company to consider technology that is non-nuclear, such as the electron beam irradiator on the Big Island.
Henkin said the location should also be reconsidered, since the proposed site is close to Oahu’s population center, sits on reclaimed land in a tsunami zone and creates a potential terrorist target because it is close to the airport.
The commission supported another argument by opponents that transporting cobalt-60 nuclear material for the irradiator through Honolulu’s streets needs further study and ordered a hearing.
"The whole point is to educate not the agency, but the state and local government what our options are here," Henkin said. "If the goal is to treat fruits and vegetables, how can we do that that has the least risk to the people of Oahu?"
Pa’ina Hawai’i says the nuclear facility will use radiation to remove pests from fruits and vegetables before export to the mainland.
Kohn said the technology is the best available because, unlike the Big Island irradiator, which has broken down for weeks at a time, it uses minimal electricity — only to lower the items into a pool where they are irradiated by cobalt-60 and then to lift them out.
He said transportation is not part of his license for the facility, and suspects the commission will not release a lot of information about it because of security issues.
He said the irradiator is needed to allow Hawaii farmers to ship fruits and vegetables to the mainland, a market from which much of Hawaii’s produce is quarantined.
"We want to help Hawaii’s agriculture," he said. "How can farmers make a living here if we don’t have markets?"