Court Curbs California’s Nuclear Plant Cleanup

     PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – Legislative efforts to regulate cleanup of a nuclear plant outside Los Angeles unconstitutionally exceed state authority, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
     The 22-page ruling affirms an April 2011 decision by U.S. District Judge John Walter, who said that federal law concerning the regulation of nuclear activity pre-empted California’s Senate Bill 900, passed in 2007.
     SB 900 required making the Santa Susana Field Laboratory suitable for subsistence farming – a more stringent set of standards than the Department of Energy had adopted.
     In affirming Walter’s finding Friday, Judge Andrew Kleinfeld said the state law governing cleanup of a nuclear site “violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity.”
     It also “impermissibly regulates and discriminates against the federal government and its contractor,” according to the ruling.
     Santa Susan Field Laboratory was built in the ’40s, at “far from people” back then 30 miles west of Los Angeles in Ventura County, Kleinfeld said. Urban sprawl has put more than 150,000 people within 5 miles of the site.
     The Department of Energy and NASA had hired Boeing to help with nuclear research and rocket testing at the site. Boeing ran a commercial nuclear reactor at the site.
     “Al this work created a terrible environmental mess,” Kleinfeld wrote. “It also created tremendous benefits, for war and peace, but the government’s work unarguably imposed tremendous harm to the environment. The soil, ground water and bedrock were seriously contaminated. Disasters and foolishness added to the environmental harm.”
     A reactor’s partial meltdown in 1959 caused radioactive gases to leak into the atmosphere for about three weeks. A so-called “Hot Lab,” or open burn pit for sodium-coated materials to cut up spent nuclear fuel, also contributed to the contamination.
     The DOE ended its nuclear research in the ’80s. In 1996, it closed the center and left.
     The Air Force and NASA’s rocket research ended in 2006.
     Boeing received a federal contract to clean up radioactive contamination, while the California Department of Toxic Substances Control supervised the removal of chemical contamination.
     Kleinfeld noted that “not everyone was satisfied with the DOE plan,” however, and so in October 2007 California passed Senate Bill 990, “Cleanup of Santa Susana Field Laboratory,” which prescribed cleanup standards for both radioactive and chemical contamination.
     The law criminalized sale of the land – that site specifically – until such standards were met. It also required that the site be made suitable for “suburban residential or rural residential (agricultural) [use], whichever produces the lower permissible residual concentration.”
     Boeing argued in a federal complaint that such a standard is more demanding than usual under both U.S. and state laws, and violated the supremacy clause.
     “It may well be unreasonable to foresee subsistence farming at the site,” Kleinfeld wrote.
     In affirming that that the law violates the Supremacy Clause on Friday, the 9th Circuit said that the issue boils down to “whether the state may mandate more stringent cleanup procedures, not generally applicable within the state, to a particular site where the federal government undertook to clean up nuclear contamination is created.”
     “In the circumstances of this case, the answer is no,” Kleinfeld wrote.
     “SB 990 directly interferes with the functions of the federal government,” the judge added.

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