Nuclear Regulatory Commission Approves Honolulu Food Irradiator

HONOLULU, Hawaii, August 21, 2007 (ENS) - The staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC, Monday issued a license to operate a commercial pool-type food irradiator adjacent to the Honolulu International Airport.

The company, Pa’ina Hawaii, LLC, intends to irradiate fresh fruit and vegetables bound for the mainland from the Hawaiian islands, cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, as well as research and development projects. The facility would use radioactive cobalt-60 to sterlize fruit flies and other pests in the shipments.

Usually, the licensing of irradiators is categorically excluded from environmental review by NRC regulations. In this case, the NRC staff entered into a settlement agreement with Concerned Citizens of Honolulu which required the staff to prepare an environmental assessment and hold a public meeting in Honolulu prior to making a final decision.

The environmental assessment considered potential impacts from transportation of the radioactive material, socioeconomics, ecology, water quality, and potential effects of aviation accidents from the nearby airport and natural phenomena.

Michael Kohn, president and part-owner of Pa'ina, said the $3 million facility could be operating by February 2008.

Kohn also owns the papaya exporter Hawaiian Fruit Co. "We need tree-ripened papayas to justify higher shipping costs," he told the "Honolulu Advertiser."

But attorney Dave Henkin of the nonprofit, public interest law firm Earthjustice, who represents the Concerned Citizens of Honolulu, said that "Pa'ina is no more certain of an approval to possess and use cobalt-60 than it was last week."

Henkin has filed a challenge to the irradiator before the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which reviews staff decisions such as the Pa'ina permit.

If the Board upholds the NRC staff's permit, there are further levels of the process that could still derail the irradiator, Henkin explained. Decisions of the Board are reviewed by the full Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is reviewed by the federal courts.

Henkin says the Concerned Citizens of Honolulu's fundamental objection to the irradiator is that applicant "has not proved that in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack that the public and environment of Honolulu would be safe."

The staff is obliged to analyze the impacts on people and environment here in Hawaii, Henkin said. "They seem content to wave their hands and say OK, there's nothing to worry about, without doing rigorous examination of what tsunami, hurricane or earthquake effects would be. Nor have they looked at reducing the risk by moving the irradiator somewhere else or using a non-nuclear tehcnololgy like the electron beam in the irradiator on the Big Island."

Henkin has seen an advance copy of the staff safety report on the irradiator due out Thursday and finds it is nothing more than a brief six-page document that does not provide a rigorous safety analysis.

The staff safety report triggers a deadline that leads to a hearing by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board within 175 days after safety report is issued, That hearing, expected sometime in 2008 in Honolulu, will allow for written testimony and expert witnesses on both sides.

If necessary, Henkin says the Concerned Citizens of Honolulu might take the issue all the way to federal court.

He cited the June 2006 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case brought by the group Mothers for Peace that requires the NRC to consider the environmental impacts of a potential terrorist attack in issuing permits.

Early in the Pa'ina proceeding, said Henkin, the NRC staff took the position that they were not going to do an analysis of terrorist risk, but after the Ninth Circuit decision, the staff did provide such an analysis.

"We don't think that there's any need for a nuclear irradiator in Hawaii," Henkin said. We would like to see the application turned down for failing to establish its safety. But we want to make sure that if anything were to be approved, demonstrated protections would be in place, and the location would consistent with the best interests of the people of Hawaii."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.