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Suit Seeks to Halt Tests That Rockwell Moved From Field Lab

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A coalition of arms control and environmental groups Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Energy in an attempt to block plutonium extraction experiments that were recently transferred from Rockwell International’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory east of Simi Valley to the University of Missouri.

The lawsuit accused the department of violating the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by failing to conduct a full environmental review of the research program, known as TRUMP-S, and by failing to seek comments from the public and other agencies before deciding no environmental study was needed.

The 18-page complaint was filed in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of seven activist groups, including three that fought Rockwell’s plan to conduct the experiments at Santa Susana, where the firm does work for the Department of Energy.

Under pressure from San Fernando Valley and eastern Ventura County activists, Rockwell announced in April that it had subcontracted the nuclear portion of the work to the University of Missouri.

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The suit seeks an injunction to delay the TRUMP-S work and to require the department to prepare an environmental impact statement. It was uncertain when a hearing on the request will be held.

The action was filed in San Francisco because the project is managed by officials of the department’s area office there.

Energy officials believe “we complied with NEPA requirements, and we conducted our activities properly,” an agency spokesman said. “However, in view of this suit, we will certainly revisit the issue and determine if any revisions have to be made.”

Paul Sewell, a spokesman for Rockwell, which is not a defendant, said the company also believes there was no need for an environmental impact statement.

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TRUMP-S--short for Transuranic Management by Pyropartitioning-Separation--is an effort to reduce the volume of the most long-lived nuclear wastes in need of perpetual isolation. The experiments themselves involve the handling of small amounts of uranium, americium, neptunium and highly dangerous plutonium in a shielded laboratory. Support for the work has come from the department and the Japanese electric power industry, with Rockwell the principal contractor.

Proponents and opponents of TRUMP-S say the process could have worldwide ramifications, but there the agreement ends.

Rockwell says the process, if perfected, would be a breakthrough in management of spent nuclear fuel. The most long-lived elements, such as plutonium, would be extracted through electrochemical reactions, making it possible to reduce the volume of waste needing permanent care.

Such a breakthrough could revive the fortunes of the nuclear industry, long in a slump because of cost overruns and environmental concerns about lack of permanent sites to dispose of high-level waste.

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Opponents said in the lawsuit that TRUMP-S could worsen radioactive contamination by allowing the shorter-lived elements of high-level waste to be put in existing land burial sites. They said it could also increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation by making it easier to extract plutonium for use in bombs.

It “would be a great financial boon for the nuclear industry but a disaster for the environment,” Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, said on Wednesday.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Southern California Federation of Scientists, Los Angeles Physicians for Social Responsibility and Mid-Missouri Nuclear Weapons Freeze Inc.

Rockwell’s request to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do the TRUMP-S work at Santa Susana was bitterly opposed by local activists. Proceedings before the NRC abruptly ended in April when the company announced an agreement to farm out the nuclear part of the work to the University of Missouri, with which it had been secretly negotiating for months.

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Plaintiffs in the lawsuit Wednesday released a copy of a February, 1990, memo in which university officials were urged to remain silent on the project at Rockwell’s request.

The memo from a member of the university’s news bureau said: “In case you were unaware, we were advised by Rockwell not to release the information until after the agreements were in force, due to possible problems from an activist group in California that is instrumental in forcing the research out of that state. It is important that the news of this partnership not be released prior to the press conference so we can secure positive media coverage of the new partnership.”


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