A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday that state officials' questions about Neutron Products Inc.'s financial stability and safety record should be explored at a full trial rather than a one-day hearing and cleared the way for the controversial maker of nuclear medical projects to resume production.
But Judge Paul A. McGuckian, who rejected the state's request for a preliminary injunction that would have stopped its core activities and prohibited Neutron from receiving additional radioactive material on site, said he believes the state will win at trial.
McGuckian said that if he issued an injunction against Neutron it would likely drive the company out of business and render moot a trial on the merits of the case. Explaining his decision, McGuckian said from the bench that immediate action was not necessary against Neutron because the state's request for an injunction "is not directly related to issues of public health" but is "essentially about money."
Yet McGuckian did limit the company's activities, pending a full trial, to the level it maintained during the 12-month period ending April 13. That was the day the state cracked down on Neutron and ordered it to shut down the part of the business that creates the radioactive sources for medical therapy and food irradiation.
McGuckian, who did not set a trial date, gave the two sides 10 days to work out the details of the agreement.
The lawyer representing the state declined to comment yesterday, but Rena I. Stinzor, the attorney for neighbors of the facility, said McGuckian's decision means that Neutron will probably be barred from "any extraordinary importation of waste" during the period before the trial.
"We will be back in operation soon," said Jackson A. Ransohoff, president of Neutron, based in Dickerson. "We are champing at the bit."
State regulators have cited Neutron repeatedly over the past 10 years for safety and procedural violations. In a 1988 incident, a company vice president whose clothes were contaminated with radioactivity set off alarms in a New York nuclear plant that he was visiting. Maryland officials testified during the hearing on a preliminary injunction that state radiological health staffers have conducted 39 inspections and 19 investigations of Neutron since 1985 and found 192 violations.
Though refusing to shut down Neutron, McGuckian noted that the Maryland Department of the Environment is likely to win at trial on the merits of its argument that Neutron violates the state law requiring it to have $750,000 in financial assets to pay for decommissioning the core part of its facility.
"The state has a legitimate concern that without the money set aside, the public will be eventually responsible for cleaning up the site," McGuckian said.
More pressing, McGuckian said, is the undue hardship the state's restrictions would pose on the 40-year-old Montgomery County company, which would "clearly devastate the company's ability to do business" and result in "significant loss of personnel and cash flow."
Neighbors of Neutron said they were disappointed that McGuckian did not grant the state's request to severely curtail Neutron's activities. But they said they were pleased with his acknowledgement that the state has a strong case.
"That's very encouraging -- he said he sees the state winning on the merits," said Carol Oberdorfer, president of the Dickerson Community Association.
Oberdorfer noted that Neutron is still barred from performing cobalt melts, as a result of a judge's order in a 1996 lawsuit. Neutron is under orders to build a structure to enclose the courtyard where it has conducted these melts -- the process that generates the most radioactive waste of any activity at the facility.
Members of the Dickerson group packed the courtroom Tuesday, listening to hours of testimony that might have seemed dry to an outsider, but elicited chuckles, hisses and even tears at one point, among this group of long-time opponents.
Yesterday, after court adjourned, the two sides remained as far apart as ever. Asked by a television reporter about a state expert's testimony that Neutron's closest neighbors are receiving the equivalent of eight extra X-rays annually, Ransohoff had a quick reply.
"The only thing they have to fear is that they are not getting enough" radiation, he said, as the eyes of opponents widened in surprise. "There is some evidence to suggest that low doses of radiation stimulate the immune system."