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Relocation of Agricultural Irradiator from Pa’ina to Kunia

Schematic of Kunia’s irradiator, used to treat fruits and vegetables. The facility is located in central Oahu where it is safe from earthquakes.

When Kīlauea volcano erupted in Hawaii last spring, Oahu native Darryn Ng couldn’t help but think about potential repercussions in his own neighborhood a few islands away.

The volcano was closely followed by a magnitude 6.9 earthquake, one of hundreds to jolt the Hawaiian archipelago in the months to come. Darryn lives near the Honolulu International Airport in Oahu. A flat area where land meets sea, his home turf is prone to tsunami, storm surge, and earthquakes, among other natural disasters.

Such environment in jeopardy changes the way Darryn lives.“People check the news everyday. Oh, five point something, that’s okay…when it’s six point something, then I think we really might have a tsunami warning. That’s what we’re all thinking of right now.”

The risk-prone area made Darryn and others like him concerned when in 2005, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)  approved plans for a fruit company to construct an irradiation site — without environmental review or local input.

Paʻina Hawaii, LLC elected to build the plant, which would have used a Cobalt-60 irradiator to kill plant pests on produce, directly next to the airport and around three miles from Darryn’s home.

The proposed site, just eight feet above sea level and in a tsunami evacuation zone, was susceptible to airplane strikes, earthquakes, and storm surge, as well as potential terrorist targets.

These factors, combined with the dangerous radioactive materials used, posed serious and unnecessary hazards to public health and safety.

Much was at stake, especially given that the area is bustling with public transport, incoming container ships, residential and commercial buildings, and recreational activity, Darryn explained.

In response, a local environmental group Concerned Citizens of Honolulu, to which Darryn is member, challenged the NRC. They demanded comprehensive environmental review required by National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), one of a number of federal laws that work to both protect the public and enable development projects to go forward without causing undue harm.

This included the consideration of alternate locations and technologies that the company could use to kill fruit flies without the threat of nuclear catastrophe.

Earthjustice lawyer David Henkin at the time argued that through complying with NEPA, the NRC would “realize the folly of placing up to a million curies of radioactive material at a site that is vulnerable to so many potential disasters, both natural and human-caused.”

The NRC in 2010 determined that its swift approval of the irradiation site violated NEPA, moved to prepare an environmental assessment for public review, and required Pa’ina Hawaii to disclose more information about the facility to the public.

Eventually, a revised assessment clearly showed that an alternative site could serve the same purpose for the company with substantially less risk to the public.

The irradiation facility was constructed instead in at an agricultural research center in Kunia, an area considered safe from earthquakes, aircraft strikes, and other environmental risks. Pa’ina Hawaii was soon able to export irradiated Hawaiian produce while minimizing danger to local citizens.

Eight years after the environmental review launched, Darryn says he and his family have been better off without construction of the irradiation facility.

“Things would definitely have been different,” Darryn said. “Through Sand Island and Ala Moana, there’s a lot of surfing contests and canoe contests…the radiation center is not [on the shoreline] and it’s a good thing.”

“The majority of us go to the beach. The ocean is part of our heritage and culture,” he said, explaining that the location of the facility would have blocked off an area well-traversed by him and his family.

“We go out from a channel from Kalihi stream, and go down along the Reef Runway to go fishing,” Darryn said, referring to waterways adjacent to the proposed irradiator site. “If the site was there, we probably wouldn’t be going fishing there.”

Darryn said that the close proximity of the irradiation site to both the airport and the ocean put locals on edge at back in 2005 — and would have even more so if it was there today. A sense a relieve pervaded the Oahu native when asked how he felt today about the success of the legal challenge through NEPA.

“The neighborhood didn’t want it, because of the radiation. Even before [the volcano] there were a lot of earthquakes and the possibility of tsunamis. So it’s good that it’s not there, especially by the shoreline.”

[1] “Final Supplement to the Environmental Assessment Related to the Proposed Pa’ina Hawaii, LLC Underwater Irradiator in Honolulu, Hawaii.” US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs. March 2011. Available at:
https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1103/ML110390325.pdf

[2] “Irradiator helps keep patients home.” The Garden Island. May 6, 2018. Available at:
https://www.thegardenisland.com/2018/05/06/hawaii-news/irradiator-helps-keep-patients-home/

[3] Under New Management, ‘Aina Le‘a Is Given Yet Another Chance by LUC.” Environmental Hawai’i. Vol 20, No 4. October 2009. Available at:
http://www.environment-hawaii.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/October-2009.pdf

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