by Nick Welsh

In a victory for anti-nuclear activists, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must consider the environmental consequences of a potential terrorist attack on a proposed nuclear fuel storage area at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County. The court rejected the NRC’s longstanding contention that the prospect of a terrorist attack is too speculative to fall under the jurisdiction of the National Environmental Policy Act. Jane Swanson of Mothers for Peace hailed the decision as a monumental victory, noting it could have significant nationwide impact at a time when the Bush administration is plugging nuclear energy. Jeff Lewis — spokesperson for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which owns Diablo Canyon — said the ruling will not stop construction of the new spent fuel storage facility. He minimized the ruling as “merely procedural,” explaining that although PG&E and the NRC have resisted legislating environmental analysis of a terrorist threat, the matter has always been an intense security concern.

Mothers for Peace, the Sierra Club, and former county supervisor Peg Pinard sued the NRC three years ago when the federal agency approved plans to erect as many as 138 massive casks to hold highly radioactive spent nuclear fuels. In the absence of a national repository for spent nuclear fuels, PG&E insisted Diablo Canyon would run out of storage space in its cooling ponds by 2007. (The company now contends that deadline could be extended to 2010.) Mothers for Peace complained that the casks would be lined up like 20-foot tall bowling pins, providing an enticing target for would-be terrorists; Lewis countered it would be “easier to defend one site as opposed to multiple sites.” The 9th Circuit Court expressed sympathy with the NRC’s concern that plant security might be compromised by revealing Diablo Canyon’s defense strategies, but faulted the agency for refusing to hear the public’s security suggestions and concerns. It’s unclear whether PG&E or the NRC will appeal the court’s ruling.

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