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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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Boeing Wins California Nuclear Cleanup Fight

(CN) - A federal judge has ruled that a California law making it illegal for the Boeing Co. to transfer or lease any part of a former nuclear-energy and rocket-testing facility until the site meets strict state clean-up requirements is unconstitutional.

Senate Bill 990, passed by the California legislature in 2007, mandated that Boeing, which owns most of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, make the land safe for residential and agricultural development - a standard far exceeding federal requirements for remediation of nuclear contamination.

Boeing sued to overturn the law, arguing that Atomic Energy Act of 1954 made clear that only the federal government could regulate nuclear activity. Thus, Boeing argued, the California law violated the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge John Walter agreed. "In the context of nuclear regulation the Supreme Court has consistently held that 'the federal government has occupied the entire field of nuclear safety concerns, except the limited powers expressly ceded to the states," he wrote.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, Boeing and the Department of Energy built up to 16 nuclear reactors at Santa Susana and burned radioactive waste in open pits, contaminating even the bedrock under the facility.

As the suburban sprawl of greater Los Angeles encroached on the once rural site, the DOE adopted procures in 1996 to clean up the radioactive contamination of the site. DOE determined that after cleanup in 2017, future users would be exposed to no more than 15 millirem of radiation per year - a lower dose, per year, than taking four cross-country plane trips.

Not satisfied with the cleanup effort, the legislature enacted SB 990, which applied only to the Santa Susana facility. The text of the bill specifically states that its purpose is "to protect the public health and safety and the environment" by requiring "complete remediation to the most protective standards."

Judge Walter said this "undisputed evidence" led him to conclude "that SB 990 is an attempt to regulate squarely within the federally occupied field of nuclear health and safety and it is therefore preempted by the AEA [Atomic Energy Act]."

The judge also concluded that because SB 990 applied only to the lease or transfer of contaminated land at the Santa Susana site, the state was treating "Boeing, the federal government, and SSFL far less favorably than it treats other contaminated sites and potentially responsible parties."

Such treatment, the judge held, violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity, which prohibits states, without congressional approval, from discriminating against the federal government or its contractors.

Having found for Boeing on the first three of its arguments against SB 990, Judge Walter declined to rule on other Boeing arguments that the bill violated its due-process rights under the 14th Amendment.

California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Linda Adams said in a statement that she was disappointed in the ruling, and that "we plan to appeal the judge's decision and compel Boeing to clean up the site to the highest environmental standards for the benefit of the entire community."

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