CONCORD, N.H. — Seabrook nuclear plant opponents acknowledged that an unfavorable Supreme Court decision Monday ends the battle over federal licensing and shifts the fight to whether the plant is operated safely.
The court rejected an appeal by New Hampshire anti-nuclear groups and Massachusetts state officials who say a radiation leak on a summer day would be a major disaster for thousands of beachgoers along the seacoast in both states.
Without comment, the court let stand the federal licensing of the reactor that has been a target of anti-nuclear activists since construction began in 1976. Justice David Souter, a former New Hampshire judge and once the state’s attorney general, disqualified himself from participating in the case.
The $6.6 billion plant was completed in 1986, but didn’t get a license until March 1990 and began commercial operation in August 1990.
“It was almost inevitable,” said Manchester lawyer Bob Backus, who represents the Seacoast Anti-Pollution League. The appeal of an earlier appellate court ruling upholding the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing procedure was “a very long shot,” he said.
He said the licensing issue appears dead, but the plant still can be ordered shut down for safety operation issues.
He said his group still is trying to intervene on the licensing transfer from New Hampshire Yankee to Northeast Utilities in Connecticut, which is taking over bankrupt Public Service Company of New Hampshire. Public Service owns 36 percent of the plant. Backus’ group claims Northeast is not running its Millstone nuclear plants safely, raising the question of whether it can run Seabrook safely.
Diane Curran of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, with headquarters in Brattleboro, Vt., said from Washington the court rejection is “the end of the road on emergency planning.”
“We have to live with the interpretation that court has given us,” she said. “Our best chance now is to show the plant is not being operated safely.”
Her group will continue to monitor the plant’s operation, she said.
Alan Nogee, energy specialist for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group in Boston, called the decision “consistent with previous Supreme Court decisions that have generally upheld the NRC’s discretion to do anything it wants.”
Tom Moughan of Citizens Within a 10-Mile Radius said the issues were generic about the NRC’s authority and its effect on the adequacy of evacuation plans.
Moughan, of Newburyport, Mass., said activists are particularly upset that the court heard no testimony on the adequacy of the area’s evacuation plans.
“They (Seabrook officials) never had to prove the plans are adequate under any definition,” Moughan said.
Neither Massachusetts group was among the opponents filing the challenge.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and former Attorney General James Shannon were vocal critics of emergency plans that would affect Massachusetts communities near the New Hampshire border.
A spokesman for Attorney General Scott Harshbarger said Harshbarger also raised legal questions.
“Clearly, we hoped the Supreme Court would hear the case based on the legal issues we had identified, but we respect their decision,” spokesman Thomas Samoluk said.
He said Harshbarger will continue working with Gov. William Weld and other state officials “to ensure that the emergency plan will best protect the health and safety of all the citizens of Massachusetts.”
A congressional committee also is investigating missing X-rays documenting weld safety at Seabrook. Plant officials say the welds are safe but reinspected them during a recent refueling shutdown.
Plant operators defend Seabrook as the safest, most closely scrutinized nuclear plant in history.
“We’ve said all along that the issue did not merit Supreme Court review,” spokesman Rob Williams said Monday.
“The plant opponents had been given ample opportunity to make their case, but this Supreme Court decision really confirms the lower court decision that the emergency plans are adequate, they’re implementable and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decision to license the plant was appropriate.”
Critics say plans are inadequate to evacuate a summertime peak population of 247,000 from a 10-mile emergency zone.
The NRC started requiring such emergency response plans after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. But opponents said the NRC only required generalized assurances that Seabrook could cope with an accident.
The Bush administration said the commission is not required by law or its own regulations to consider “evidence concerning hypothesized nuclear accidents.”
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the commission’s licensing procedure in January, calling the agency’s approach “a reasonable exercise of … discretion.”
The plant’s huge cost helped cripple the nation’s nuclear industry, many experts say. No plant has received a license since Seabrook, and no utility has applied for a license since 1978. More than 100 reactor orders have been canceled.