Active Today, or Radioactive Tomorrow

A day at the Idaho National Laboratory


On a blazing summer day in Idaho one might think solar power is an energy solution just looking for a problem.But the trouble with solar is that it's worthless when it comes to making nuclear weapons. After the first usable electricity was generated by nuclear power in Idaho in 1951, Idaho National Laboratory (formerly INEEL) designed and tested more than 50 state-of-the-art nuclear reactors, lending expertise to every nuclear reactor ever designed. The lab also played a major role in the nuclear weapons program during the Cold War, enhancing the destructive capacity of warheads from kilotons to megatons and helping to put "assured" in the official policy of "mutually assured destruction."

Unfortunately, the INL also became a burial ground for all things radioactive.

The list of buried items includes 750,000 barrels, boxes and crates of nuclear waste, mostly from the nuclear trigger production facility at Rocky Flats near Denver, Colorado.

But what was once cloaked in Cold War secrecy is now on open display at the INL.

Last week's Snake River Alliance Tour of INL began at 9 a.m. at the Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-1) site, which is a National Historic Landmark and museum, housing 1950's-era nuclear reactor parts, as well as a prototype of an atomic jet engine that would have carried an aircraft 30,000 miles without landing. The project was canned during the Kennedy administration due to high levels of radioactivity. A prototype once exploded during tests and contaminated 1,500 acres of Idaho desert.

At EBR-1, tour attendees were each given identification badges and a wallet-sized device was attached to attendee Paul Bernstein, to measure radiation safety levels along the way. Alan Jines, spokesman for the Department of Energy, and Radioactive Waste Management Complex Manager Steve Lopez joined the group for a drive-by of the Subsurface Disposal Area, an 88-acre field of trenches, pits and disposal facilities constructed by various U.S. and British contractors over the years to handle the nuclear waste clean-up, including Lockheed Martin. Jines pointed from a hill at the overall complex where he investigated disposal leaks for 12 years while working at DOE.

"We've gotten a lot better at what we are doing out here," he said.

Within the waste management complex, Rick Vonfeldt manages the Accelerated Retrieval Project. What was unceremoniously dumped from trailers into unlined pits in the 1950's and 1960's is now being exhumed and picked over by remote-controlled heavy equipment under air-locked warehouses monitored by closed-circuit TV cameras. Contaminated vapors beneath the pits are sucked out around the clock. But it was too late to control a flow, one kilometer in diameter, of nuclear and organic waste, which has been seeping toward the Snake River Aquifer for decades. Much of the waste at INL will be radioactive for several thousand years. According to Jines, some of it is already showing up in the aquifer.

"Isn't this a bit of a publicity problem for you, that you still bury in un-lined pits?" asked Snake River Alliance director Jeremy Maxand.

According to INL's Risk Assessment Manager, Brandt Meagher, the practice is safe, since the new burials do not include the organic volatile compounds, machine oils and other solvents from nuclear weapons facilities, which enable the transport of radioactive materials into the underlying aquifer.

Maxand and Vanessa Crossgrove Fry of the Alliance insisted that the surrounding ground was already soaked with enough organic compounds to eventually mix with the waste and pose a continuing threat.

Meagher assured the group that despite this possibility, the continued dumping of radioactive waste into unlined pits and trenches was quite safe.

The alliance's cleanup goals got a boost in May, when District Court Judge Edward Lodge issued a court order against the Department of Energy requiring the removal of "all buried transuranic waste," rather than the stuff stored conveniently above ground.

Despite recent plutonium fires, trucking accidents and years of bad PR about the INL, clean-up managers were eager to share their latest techniques for removal 36,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste. The material will head to New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant; the project is scheduled for completion in 2012. While workers remove debris from various unlined pits, a fortified crater 200 meters wide and about 80 feet deep, designed to be secure for a thousand years, is also being filled with plastic-wrapped tanks and concrete cannisters of nuclear waste from around the facility.

According to Maxand, "There is a lot more stuff out there that doesn't fit the 'transuranic' category, that we still need to get out of the ground." Some of the material includes the core fragments from the Three Mile Island melt-down, contaminated soils and debris, millions of gallons of liquid waste, nuclear reactor parts and entire buildings scattered around the INL's site, which covers 850 square miles.

A few miles distant, we visited another site known as The Idaho CERCLA Disposal Facility (IDCF), a crater near the Idaho Nuclear Reactor Testing and Engineering Center where contaminated soils and other items are being treated in evaporation ponds and various radioactive debris are being packaged in concrete, tractor trailers and tanks, wrapped in plastic and stored underground; the wstew ill be safe for a thousand years, according to Jack Simonds, the IDCF project manager.

The IDCF is adjacent to the location of injection wells which were used to send 13 million gallons of liquid waste into the ground during the "dilution is the solution" policy days at INL, which continued until 1982, a policy the officials at INL are living to regret.

One of INL's recent high-profile projects was the assembly of Plutonium 238-powered "space batteries" for NASA's New Horizon's Space probe, which was launched this year and is proceding toward Pluto, 2.8 billion miles from the sun.

Most of NASA's space probes rely on solar collectors for fuel, but dim little Pluto is beyond the strength of solar radiation. So, the probe has been equipped with little thermo-coupled bundles of Plutonium 238, enough to power two light bulbs, one space probe, or radiate parts of the earth's atmosphere in the event of an explosion during take-off.

Come to think of it, I never saw any readouts from Bernstein's radiation detector before leaving. We just have to trust that they know what they are doing.