Irradiator debate heats up
Supporters cite potential benefits to agriculture while opponents say the radiation poses risks
Backers of a Honolulu facility that would use radioactive Cobalt-60 to kill pests on tropical fruit say it would boost the state's diversified agriculture industry while posing little danger.
Opponents say the irradiator would bring an unnecessary risk of radioactive contamination for much of Oahu if there were an accident or act of terrorism for only a small economic benefit.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Written comment on the proposal (Docket No. 030-36974) will be accepted until Feb. 8:
» By mail: Chief, Rules Review and Directives Branch, Mail Stop T6-D59, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001
» By fax: Attn: Matthew Blevins, (301) 415-5397
» By e-mail: NRCREP@nrc.gov
» On The Web: Download documents related to Pa'ina Hawaii's proposed irradiator at this link. (PDF)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will receive comments on the proposed Pa'ina Hawaii LLC irradiator Thursday at the Ala Moana Hotel, 410 Atkinson Drive. Meeting schedule: 6-7 p.m., informal open house; 7-7:30 p.m., overview presentation; 7:30-8 p.m., question and answer session; 8-9 p.m., public testimony.
And they say some people would be leery of eating the fruits that receive the treatment.
With such a divergence of opinion, things are bound to get hot when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hears public comments on the issue at a Honolulu meeting Thursday. The commission said in a December environmental assessment that Pa'ina Hawaii LLC's plans to build a fruit irradiator at the Honolulu Airport would pose "no significant environmental impact."
Pa'ina President Michael Kohn said he is pleased with the agency's finding and hopes it will lead to the necessary license to build the irradiator before the year is over.
Kohn said building the irradiator will cost him about $3 million and that he is receiving no government money. He said he expects to charge about 16 cents a pound to treat papayas, which he expects to be a mainstay of his business.
Kohn said he hopes ultimately to process 5 million pounds of fruit a year.
"I know of at least 10 large farmers and of at least five shippers that would have an immediate need for it (the irradiator)," Kohn said.
Cobalt-60 is a radioactive substance that emits gamma rays that kill insects and bacteria.
It can also make a person very sick or kill them if they are directly exposed to it, Kohn said. However, the type of irradiator he proposes using is classed as "inherently safe by design" by the International Atomic Energy Agency, he said.
"Even if a mistake is made, nothing will happen," Kohn said, because the radioactive Cobalt-60 is encapsulated and kept at the bottom of a 22-foot-deep pool of water that keeps harmful radiation from reaching people.
The Cobalt-60 would be transferred to the facility once every few years in lead transport casks, Kohn said.
David Henkin, the Earthjustice attorney opposing the facility on behalf of Concerned Citizens of Honolulu, alleges that the federal agency's analyses of the risk of radiation release in case of an airplane crash or other disaster are "clearly inadequate."
"I don't want to flap my arms about terrorism and sound like a kook," Henkin said. "But the world has changed in the last five or six years, so we really need to be thoughtful about whether we want to create new risks."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's 12-page environmental assessment of the Pa'ina Hawaii irradiator concludes that the Graystar "Genesis" irradiation unit would be constructed, installed and operated in such a way that there are "no significant impacts" to air, water, public health or Hawaii's environment.
Its assessment of disaster risks concludes that there is "negligible" potential for radiation to leave the plant because of an earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane. It classifies the chance of an airplane hitting the irradiator as being 1 in 5,000.
Henkin claims that risk is too high for radioactive material and not in line with standards for prevention of airplane strikes to nuclear power plants.
"There's no examination of the effects of a fully loaded passenger jet, full of fuel," hitting the irradiator, or the effects of a fireball from such a crash, Henkin said.
Henkin questions whether such an accident could create a "dirty bomb" scenario, spreading radioactive Cobalt-60 over a large portion of Oahu.
The report says the encapsulation around the Cobalt-60 meets industry standards of withstanding the impact of a 4-pound steel weight dropped from 3 feet.
Henkin said that standard seems absurdly inadequate in event of a plane crash.
In 2005, the National Nuclear Security Administration removed a "substantial quantity" of radioactive Cobalt-60 from a research irradiator at the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus. The agency said the material could have been used in a "dirty bomb," a combination of explosive and radioactive material that could spread and contaminate a large area with radioactive material.
Henkin argues that if that old material was a danger, why wouldn't fresh radioactive Cobalt-60 pose a similar -- or worse -- risk.
Lyle Wong, administrator of state Department of Agriculture's Plant Industry Division, called the proposed Pa'ina irradiator "a little, tiny facility" compared to irradiators he's visited on the mainland and in other countries.
Wong believes the facility will provide new export markets for Hawaii-grown produce, which cannot be shipped to some states because of the possibility of insect or bacterial contamination.
The Oahu irradiator could also be used to treat imported flowers, Wong said.
The state's only other fruit irradiator, which does not use radioactive materials, is on the Big Island. Flying produce there for treatment is not cost-effective for farmers from other islands, Wong said.
COBALT-60: A PRIMER
What is Cobalt-60? A radioactive form of the element Cobalt, created for commercial use and as a byproduct of nuclear reactor operations.
How is Cobalt-60 used? In industrial applications, such as in leveling devices and thickness gauges; radiotherapy in hospitals; and to sterilize spices and certain foods.
How does Cobalt-60 sterilize foods? Its powerful gamma rays kill bacteria and other pathogens. After the radiation ceases, the product is not radioactive. The process is sometimes called "cold pasteurization."
How could Cobalt-60 hurt people? Exposure to large sources of Cobalt-60 can cause skin burns, acute radiation sickness, or death. Cobalt-60 absorbed by the liver, kidneys, or bone tissue can cause cancer.
Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control