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04-12-03 Cape Horn Reactor shipment on again

Permit issued for barge transit but hurdles remain

Of The Post and Courier Staff

An on-again off-again plan to ship a decommissioned nuclear reactor from California around the tip of South America to a disposal site in South Carolina is apparently on again after a federal agency OK'd the seafaring leg of the move Monday.

But the transit itself, which would involve bringing the 668-ton reactor ashore in the Lowcountry, still faces hurdles.

The reactor's owner, Southern California Edison, confirmed Tuesday that it has contracted with a privately operated shipping terminal at the former Charleston Naval Base to bring the aging nuclear waste onto South Carolina soil.

Dock operator CMMC, however, needs approval from the U.S. Navy, which still owns the base land, CMMC President Dick Gregory said Tuesday.

Still, the issuance of the permit from the U.S. Transportation Department ends months of political and bureaucratic wrangling over whether the reactor poses too numerous safety and environmental hazards to be shipped on a barge.

The permit is good through April 2004. Edison said it hopes to begin the 90-day shipment by March.

Since it started a $500 million decommissioning process in 1999, the reactor has drawn the ire of influential California environmental groups, been denied cross-country rail and truck shipment, been rejected passage through the Panama Canal because of its weight and seen interest from two South Carolina shipping terminal operators slip away.

The State Ports Authority, the agency that operates the state's public shipping terminals, backed away from its 2001 bid to handle the reactor out of concern that it might become a terrorist target.

Nuclear experts have said that's unlikely because of the reactor's enormous weight and size and the sophistication required for such an attack.

Tom Clements of Greenpeace International said a more realistic concern is that an accident during the 11,000-mile voyage could send the hunk of radioactive cargo tumbling to the seafloor. Edison has an insurance policy that will cover $50 million in salvage costs in the event of an accident.

"It definitely poses a hazard because if there was an accident it would release nuclear radiation into the environment," Clements said, adding that federal officials haven't addressed what discussions they've had with countries along the shipping route.

Greenpeace and other nuclear watchdog groups favor delayed decommission of nuclear reactors, which means the utility holds onto the radioactive material until most of the harmful effects have dissipated.

Edison officials said a person sitting atop the reactor would be exposed to the same amount of radiation as might be absorbed during a routine series of medical X-rays.

The reactor, which generated electricity from 1968 until 1992 at Edison's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Diego, is encased in steel and concrete. The cylindrical package is 33 feet tall and 15 feet wide.

If the reactor does come ashore in South Carolina, it would be loaded onto a specially designed rail car and moved 120 miles along a CSX rail line to the low-level nuclear waste disposal site in Barnwell, the only waste facility in the country approved to accept the reactor.

California's nuclear waste and that of most other states will no longer be buried at Barnwell after 2008, when a three-state compact between South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey takes effect.

Gov. Mark Sanford's nuclear advisory committee is scheduled to meet Thursday in Barnwell to discuss the compact.