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From Potatoes to Plutonium

Idaho's most infamous export might be about to change

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Tim Frazier was raised near Dayton, Ohio, and spent his childhood within sight of the Department of Energy (DOE) Mound Site in nearby Miamisburg. Unfortunately, the plant is not only known for working to advance nuclear technology. It also caused extensive uranium contamination of the groundwater aquifer, and soil contamination including radium, tritium and plutonium-238. Despite problems associated with Mound over the years, Frazier grew up to manage the facility. "I have the utmost confidence in the DOE's construction and maintenance of nuclear facilities," he said. "I even moved my wife and two little girls closer to the site when I took over."

Today, Frazier is the document manager for a proposed plutonium production consolidation project for the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), and the DOE's technical expert on plutonium-238. (On February 1, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory-West became the Idaho National Laboratory.)

Frazier was part of a DOE team that recently conducted "scoping" meetings in Idaho and surrounding states to answer questions and quell fears about the plan to bring all the plutonium-238 production to Idaho. Citizens attending the meetings stated concerns that bringing plutonium-238-sometimes referred to as the most deadly substance known to man-to Idaho would jeopardize the environment and health of residents around the INL facility in Eastern Idaho.

Plutonium-238 is an isotope created after irradiating neptunium-237 with a nuclear reactor. It is 275 times more radioactive than weapons grade plutonium, since it decays much faster. Engineers harness the significant heat created by this rapid decay to generate electricity for radioisotope power systems, as well as unmanned NASA spacecraft like satellites and interplanetary probes. The Viking craft that landed on Mars in 1976 and the Cassini Space Probe were two crafts that relied on long-lived plutonium-238 batteries to power their scientific instruments.

But Frazier says that many obstacles keep scientists from making the compact thermoelectric generators as efficiently as they should. "Currently the department produces these systems in a very inefficient and dangerous way," he says. "First we ship neptunium-237 from Idaho to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where it gets fabricated into targets. It is then shipped back to Idaho for irradiation, shipped nearly a thousand miles to Los Alamos in New Mexico for processing and finally trucked back to Idaho for construction of the radioisotope power systems. We want folks to know that we could make the process so much safer and cheaper by consolidating it in Idaho."

The DOE claims that centering this entire process in Idaho will streamline nuclear production, improve safety issues dealing with transportation and potentially save millions of dollars. But according to Jeremy Maxand, the executive director of the nuclear watchdog group The Snake River Alliance, the DOE's claims are only half the story.

"Idahoans are being asked to bear the burden of the cost and risk without being told the benefit," Maxand says. "It makes me highly suspicious that on one hand they sell this extremely hazardous process to Idahoans via sleek NASA space batteries, when in fact we've made them for decades using plutonium purchased from Russia's stockpile. Then in the next breath they'll say that the plutonium-238 produced in Idaho will be used for classified national security missions that are not space based at all."

Frazier is guarded in his descriptions of the missions that would be supported by the $230 million proposed facility. He insists, however, "They are no non-military, non-defense related national security; the plutonium-238 will not be used in earth's orbit or for spy satellites, nor will they be in any way space based."

As for the Russian plutonium, Frazier is more forthcoming. "Indeed," he says, "We have been allowed to purchase plutonium for NASA space missions from Russia, but we have made agreements with their government not to use it for our many national security purposes. Plus, just because the Russians happen to be our friends right now doesn't mean they will be in the future. The U.S. needs to decrease our reliance on their plutonium."

Maxand, however, is still not convinced. "O.K., the DOE is proposing a project that could leave Idahoans breathing plutonium for the next 80 years and [they] won't tell us what its for," he says. "Lets talk about something they can't hide from the public. Plutonium-238 is lethal and difficult to contain. Is this secrecy going to benefit Idahoans given the DOE's well-documented and abysmal track record for worker, community and environmental safety?"

Fears over secrecy are nothing new to the DOE. For over 40 years, the department operated the nation's defense nuclear weapons complex without any independent, external oversight. As a result, by the late 1980s, significant public health and safety issues had accumulated at many facilities. In response, Congress created an independent oversight organization, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The DNFSB is charged with providing advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Energy "to ensure adequate protection of public health and safety." It has also issued stern warnings to the DOE over the past decade about HEPA filtration systems, a safeguard intended to be the last line of defense for the public against toxic emissions.

"The HEPA filtration and passive confinement ventilation systems widely used in nuclear facilities are not adequately capable of containing hazardous materials with confidence since they allow a quantity of unfiltered air contaminated with radioactive material to be released from an operating nuclear facility during accident scenarios," said the DNFSB.

When asked about possible accidents like earthquakes, tornados and fires compromising a building that housed plutonium-238 in Idaho, Tim Frazier's only response is brief: "Those situations are highly unlikely."

Unexpected events and accidents, however, have occurred. In 1957, for instance, a fire began in a glove box at the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site in Golden, Colorado. Combustible gases passed under pressure through ventilation ductwork, ignited the HEPA filters, and caused the exhaust system to explode. Plutonium contamination, spread throughout the building and outdoors through the ventilation system. Observers outside the building saw a "very dark" smoke plume 80 to 100 feet high billowing from the building.

Another fire in 1969, again at Rocky Flats, spread through several hundred interconnected glove boxes in two connected buildings. Caused by the spontaneous ignition of a plutonium briquette, the blaze contaminated the two large buildings and exposed firemen to high doses of radiation. Off-site plutonium measurements after the accident were well above normal.

More recently, in the summer of 2000, wildfires in the vicinity of the Hanford Nuclear Facility hit the highly radioactive waste disposal trenches. Airborne plutonium radiation levels in the nearby cities of Pasco and Richland, Washington, were reportedly elevated to1,000 times above normal.

According to a 2004 report by the National Center for Environmental Health of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is abundant evidence in areas surrounding the Los Alamos National Labratory-the site after which INL's complex would be modeled-that hazardous emissions are escaping the facility despite DOE's best efforts to contain it. The CDC concluded that the soil surrounding LANL contains as much as 100 times more plutonium than was previously estimated. According to the same report, Los Alamos County has an abnormally high rate of breast, melanoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, ovary, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancers, and Los Alamos residents, even those who have never worked at the lab itself, have more plutonium in their bodies than any one other county nationwide.

Despite reassurances from government officials, many Idahoans remain unconvinced. And if attendance at the first round of public meetings is any indication of disapproval, the plutonium consolidation proposal could meet stiff resistance from all corners of the state.

"Even under the best circumstances, plutonium is difficult to control and could have devastating health and environmental impacts on Idaho's people and environment," says Maxand. "Plutonium is a boomerang that has always come back to bite us, and this project will be no different."

While the DOE is set to release the draft Environmental Impact Statement in late April, DOE officials maintain they intend on starting construction of the INL plutonium facility in October of this year. The Snake River Alliance is organizing public meetings across Idaho to inform people of the potential risks involved with such a proposal. the case against the plutonium space race

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