Approximately 300 people gathered in the Red Lion Downtowner last Thursday to attend a meeting with the Department of Energy regarding a proposed plutonium production facility at the Idaho National Laboratory. Moderators were forced to expand the room to accommodate those who came, mostly to gripe about the plan. But by the end of the nearly three-hour meeting, about a third of the estimated 50 people who had signed up to get their opinion of the project on public record had left without speaking, backing up many people's claims that their concerns were not being taken seriously.
Last November, the DOE proposed to consolidate its plutonium-238 production operations from the three current plants at INL, Tennessee and New Mexico. Consolidating production in a new $300 million plant at the INL would enable the department to concentrate security efforts, said Tim Frazier, the DOE spokesman who has spearheaded the department's environmental impact study that was the subject of Thursday's meeting. Frazier said upped security at the INL would guard against potential terror attacks, and that by condensing operations, the department could reduce risky interstate transportation of radioactive materials.
The DOE uses non-weapons grade plutonium-238 to make radioisotope power systems, which the government has been producing for the past 35 years. These systems power long-term, unmanned projects like deep space probes for NASA. According to Frazier and the EIS, the technology will also be used for "national security measures," the specifics of which are classified.
The U.S. has used plutonium stocks from Russia in the past, but there is no domestic production capability, Frazier said. While the U.S. has an inventory to meet short-term needs, production must begin now to meet future needs, according to the EIS. Frazier estimates about 11 pounds of domestic plutonium would be produced annually to fulfill the deep space project needs and future national security projects.
The EIS, drafted as a mandate from the National Environmental Policy Act, analyzes potential risks to the environment and surrounding population under three proposed plans. NEPA requires a public comment period of the draft EIS before a final draft is published and a decision made. As part of the public comment, the DOE held eight lengthy, contentious meetings in Idaho and Wyoming over the last several weeks-Boise's meeting was the last of these.
The three proposals listed in the draft EIS are: the No Action Alternative, where plutonium would continue to be produced in both Idaho and Tennessee; the Consolidation Alternative (preferred by the DOE), where the INL would house all operations, and the Consolidation with Bridge Alternative that Frazier said was drafted in response to public concerns voiced at the initial planning phase. Under that plan, just over four pounds of plutonium would be made at the Oak Ridge site until the new facilities at INL are completed, supposedly in 2011.
Attendees of Thursday's meeting largely supported the No Action plan among those choices, with the caveat that most prefer no nuclear operations whatsoever, given concerns over the DOE's nuclear production accidents and waste management.
"There is a clear and undeniable track record when it comes to the government's handling of plutonium," said Jeremy Maxand, director of the Snake River Alliance. "They say, 'We're going to learn from our past mistakes,' but if they have learned from the past mistakes, we wouldn't see (medical) effects from workers inhaling plutonium. Statistics are there since as recently as 2003. And statistics show a third of the workers who developed cancer in the Rocky Flats area (a former nuclear facility just outside of Denver) got it from the job."
The DOE panel, consisting of Frazier and two public relations officers from the INL, tried to appease public outrage about its former secrecy. "We have tried to make a more open and honest process, trying to get out and talk with the public ... to get input. We have been very forthcoming," Frazier said.
But some in the meeting questioned what Maxand had earlier called "unreasonable" safety statistics. Frazier said both the facility proposed at the INL and the spacecraft housing the radioactive plutonium have been extensively tested for safety, and the harm imposed to Idahoans and the local environment are slight. But, he admitted upon adamant questioning, "anything is possible," in regards to an unforeseen accident.
"If engineers are wrong about safety ... thousands will die," said Martin Orr, a sociology professor from Boise State. "Are you guys delusional or what?" Other speakers questioned risks posed by either an earthquake or a potential terror strike at the plant.
"The INL has an existing reactor that will continue to operate whether we consolidate or not," Frazier responded. "We will produce nuclear material at a secure and safe site, and for that we will use existing nuclear operations. There is a great security force at the INL, and the DOE preferred using Idaho operations as the best idea."
Comments throughout the meeting, both over the microphone or muttered under audience members' breaths, raised issue with how the DOE would consider the public's views in its final decision.
"The original intent of holding hearings such as these has its root in a noble attempt to let people express their concerns to our elected lawmakers," said Nino Carpenter of Boise. "Unfortunately, I fear too often these attempts are just patronizing window dressings offered by lawmakers who feel they know better than the ordinary citizen ... Even when public and scientific opinions weighs heavily against a governmental proposal, the powers that be ignore ... these opinions and do what they want-especially when these issues are framed under the heading of 'national security.'"
Of the about 50 who spoke during the meeting, three voiced support for the proposal. "I want to mention that ... I think INL is a great asset to Idaho," said Gary Bennett, a consultant and former employee of the DOE. "I think your plan is very well thought out. It mitigates a lot of risks and provides what I think is a critical need of technology."
Shortly after Bennett issued his statement to the court reporter hired to document public opinion for the final EIS draft, moderator Jim Parnham told the dwindling crowd there were about 15 speakers left from those who signed up before the meeting to speak. Only one of the sixteen called names had stayed to give his opinion-indicating to some that the DOE had already made up its mind about bringing the plutonium plant to Idaho, regardless of the EIS study and public scoping meetings.
"I'm not sure the DOE takes public opinion from these meetings," said Boise State student Megan Egbert. "I hope so, but we'll see."
Frazier assured the Boise crowd their opinion would be included in the draft EIS, which U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham will have to read before signing off on the final proposal. Frazier expected that process to be complete by next year, and if the DOE's preferred alternative of consolidation is approved, the plant could be built at INL by 2009.