With a television news camera in the courtroom and several other reporters waiting around outside, Carolina Power & Light opted to drop charges in Wake County District Court last week against three anti-nuclear activists who were arrested on Oct. 17 for staging a protest at the company's Raleigh headquarters.
Arrested for trespassing were the Rev. Carrie Bolton, lawyer Lewis Pitts and N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network director Jim Warren. The three were arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience in opposition to CP&L's plan to expand its high-level nuclear waste storage at its Shearon Harris nuclear plant in southwestern Wake County.
Despite widespread public opposition to the expansion, which would make Shearon Harris the nation's largest repository for bundles of highly radioactive spent fuel rods, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has given approval to CP&L's plan. The spent fuel rods are already being stored in two operational pools at Shearon Harris. Under the new plan, two additional storage pools would go on line.
Because of long delays in the federal government's promise to open a national disposal site for high-level radioactive waste, utilities throughout the country have had to resort to on-site storage. With no federal plan on the horizon, the spent fuel rods could be kept on-site at Shearon Harris for many years.
Scientists hired as consultants by Orange County claim the chances for an accident involving the storage pools are high as one in 2,000. CP&L cites its safe storage record in the two operational pools as evidence that the risks of an accident are minimal.
Because of the high radioactivity, the pools must use continuously moving water to cool the rods. A loss of cooling water could result in a major nuclear accident. Warren distributed a press release in the courthouse claiming that two similar fuel rod storage pools at nuclear plants in Alabama and Iowa lost cooling in accidents last year.
"The mishaps have serious implications for Carolina Power & Light's proposal to create the nation's only four-pool storage site for highly irradiated nuclear waste," Warren wrote. "If for any reason waste pools lose cooling water, or if water stops moving long enough to boil away, the exposure of waste bundles to air can cause them to burst into flame, potentially releasing large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere with little chance of stopping the accident after it begins."
NC WARN has called on CP&L to use a method of dry cask storage as a safer means of storing the fuel rods.
According to Stewart Fisher, the Durham lawyer who represented the three activists, the defense was prepared to call expert witnesses who would have claimed the defendants were justified in their actions in order to prevent greater harm to the public by CP&L.
"This is a First Amendment issue," Fisher said. "CP&L is a public utility and my clients had every right to seek a discussion with its CEO over an issue with such important regional safety ramifications. ... Make no mistake: My clients were not afraid of this case going to trial."
In dropping the charges, the district attorney said in an affidavit that the three activists may have been unaware that they were trespassing at CP&L headquarters because they "did not know the boundaries" of the property. "Therefore since the protest was otherwise peaceful and nonviolent [the charges] should be dismissed."
Bolton said she was ready to go to trial.
"Nobody believes CP&L dropped this case over a technicality about where we were sitting," she said. "This was damage control to prevent further exposure of the regional safety risks of CP&L's gigantic waste expansion at the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant."
Said Warren: "We're happy to have the victory over CP&L. We're not done with this by any means."
In a recent development, U.S. Sen. John Edwards and Rep. David Price sent a letter to the NRC, dated Jan. 5, 2001, questioning the propriety of the NRC ruling, and whether it compromises the integrity of the overall review process.