Nuke watchdog loses lawsuit over reacto

Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free Jackson Hole Idaho National Lab

By Noah Brenner
November 3, 2007

Valley nuclear watchdog Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free lost a lawsuit against the federal government over its efforts to refurbish an aging nuclear reactor at the Idaho National Lab, located about 90 miles west of Grand Teton National Park.

The group alleged the Department of Energy has not performed the required environmental analysis to upgrade the 40-year-old Advanced Test Reactor.

The nonprofit asked U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill for an injunction shutting down the reactor until the Department of Energy completes any environmental assessments required under the National Environmental Policy Act and upgrades safety equipment.

In its complaint, KYNF alleged that due to “neglect, antiquated equipment, poor design, and many years of what the DOE has termed ‘budget austerity’” the reactor is unsafe, particularly its core cooling system and its ability to withstand an earthquake. Unlike commercial reactors, the ATR does not have a containment dome.

Department of Justice attorneys rejected all of KYNF’s claims in their response to the lawsuit filed in the federal district court for Idaho.

“To the extent a response is deemed necessary, Federal Defendants deny any alleged violations and deny the Plaintiffs are entitled to any relief,” the response states.

In Judge Winmill’s ruling, he found that the extension process was an ongoing effort to make the reactor viable “indefinitely,” and therefore it did not require an environmental impact statement.

Attorney Mark Sullivan, who represented KYNF and its co-plaintiffs in the case, said the judge affirmed many of his group’s positions and affirmed that the plaintiff’s had standing to bring the suit, even though he ultimately ruled in favor of DOE.

“We are gratified that Judge Winmill properly rejected virtually all of the DOE’s arguments, particularly those that sought to deny Plaintiffs’ a review of the DOE’s actions on the merits,” Sullivan said in a statement. “In the end, however, we believe the Judge made a mistake of fact.”

Sullivan said his group of plaintiffs, which includes Wilson resident and KYNF Executive Director Mary Woollen and the Idaho-based Environmental Defense Institute, are considering their options to appeal the ruling.

“We believe that finding is contradicted by the record,” Sullivan said.

The federal government is currently looking at a plan to use the Advanced Test Reactor to produce plutonium-238 for power generation in space and for classified national security projects. plutonium-238 is not used in nuclear weapons but it is about 270 times more radioactive than plutonium-239, the common ingredient in atomic bombs.

The Advanced Test Reactor is the last of the experimental reactors built at the site and is roughly 40 years old. Government officials claim it meets current nuclear safety standards. KYNF officials have said they believe the reactor is unsafe and the group has another pending lawsuit demanding the federal government release documents that KYNF officials say will prove its claims.

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