Food irradiator proposed near airport draws fire
A community group has asked the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a comprehensive environmental review on the proposed commercial irradiator near Honolulu Airport.
"My main concern is the potential catastrophe on the environment, water and the people," said Darryn Ng, a member of the group, Concerned Citizens of Honolulu.
The environmental law firm called Earthjustice, which is representing the group, sent a petition to the NRC requesting an environmental review study be done under the National Environmental Policy Act on the planned "underwater pool-type commercial irradiator."
Michael Kohn, president of Pa'ina Hawaii and owner of the Hawaii Fruit Co., submitted a license application with the NRC in June, asking to operate a Graystar Genesis irradiation unit. The unit would use radioactive cobalt-60 to kill bacteria and insect pests in Hawaii fruits and vegetables to make them ready for export.
The unit, proposed for Palekona Street, would keep the cobalt-60 in a 20-foot-deep pool of water. Items to be treated are loaded onto pallets covered with stainless-steel "bells" that resemble diving bells. These pallets are lowered into the water with pressurized air inside the bell so the items do not get wet, and are held over the radioactive material for several minutes.
Concerned Citizens of Honolulu raised concerns this week about health risks, technical problems with the design, and safety issues, including the vulnerability of the facility to terrorist attack.
Members want to explore "alternate locations and technologies that could kill fruit flies without the threat of nuclear catastrophe."
Kohn said he has yet to read the petition, but he added, "We will do everything that the law requires, and we will answer their concerns."
He said the unit will be operated well below the federal Food and Drug Administration's maximum radiation level for food irradiation. "This type of irradiator is inherently safe because the source never leaves the water," he said.
According to the American Medical Association, food irradiation is "a safe and effective process that increases safety of food when applied according to governing regulations." Still, the association continues to encourage the FDA and the USDA to place irradiation labels on all irradiated fruits and other items.
The petition claims that there are "inadequate measures" to prevent the emission of radioactive material from the irradiator in the event of incidents such as aviation accidents, mechanical failures or storms.
Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said the location is not ideal for such a facility because it is in a tsunami evacuation zone and near two major military bases and Honolulu Airport.
"It's our major international airport on which we rely and our economy relies. These present unique circumstances that demand an environmental review," he added.
But Kohn noted that the proposed location is appropriate. "Honolulu Airport is the focal point of distribution," he said.
An NRC spokesman would not comment on the petition because officials have not seen it yet. A petition undergoes a 10-day review before a decision is made.
Hawaii has one irradiation facility in Hilo.