Thursday, July 3, 2008

INL's waste problem has its roots in Cold War practices


Edition Date: 07/03/08

Behind the Cold War's curtain of secrecy, federal scientists and engineers settled for shortsighted, inadequate practices to dispose of the long-lived, deadly nuclear materials produced by reactors and processing plants.

Today, federal taxpayers are paying the price to clean it up at the Idaho National Laboratory. Plutonium-contaminated tools, clothes and debris packed in barrels and cardboard boxes were dumped with hazardous chemicals in trenches and buried atop the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, the water source for most of southern Idaho.

The Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor of the Department of Energy, chose the floodplain sediments at the end of the Lost River to bury radioactive materials such as plutonium. It was a decision Idahoans have struggled with since.

In 1953, the commission decided to ship plutonium-contaminated waste to Idaho from its Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Denver. Trains brought thousands of barrels of contaminated tools, clothes and other debris along with industrial solvents and toxic chemicals that would remain dangerous for more than 10,000 years. The waste was buried without any environmental impact studies.

In 1962, 2 inches of rain fell on top of 8 inches of snow in three days, sending a torrent of water down the Lost River and into the trenches of nuclear waste. Barrels floated to the surface. Gloves, sample bottles and other debris were found in undeveloped areas outside the complex.

At other times, barrels filled with volatile chemicals exploded and burned. That prompted workers to shoot the barrels to allow the explosions to take place under controlled conditions.

So much waste was coming in from Rocky Flats that managers decided to quit stacking barrels to minimize costs and reduce radiation exposure. They dumped the barrels, instead.

A labor strike forced managers to unload waste themselves, so they lost control over the inventory of the waste they were burying, a 1979 DOE report said.

A 1966 report by the National Academy of Sciences predicted radioactive material or organic chemicals would seep from corroding steel drums through fractured basalt into the aquifer. But it took a plutonium fire in 1969 at Rocky Flats to draw the attention necessary to get action. The fire caused an increase in waste shipments to Idaho, which in turn caught the attention of then-U.S. Sen. Frank Church of Idaho.

He asked four federal agencies to review the waste burial. The studies confirmed the earlier reports that burying plutonium over the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer was unwise. Another flood in 1969 inundated the trenches again, adding urgency to the message.

Church and newly elected Gov. Cecil Andrus wrote Atomic Energy Commission Director Dixie Lee Ray, urging her to quit burying the waste and to begin planning to ship it out of Idaho. Ray, later the governor of Washington, agreed and announced plans to start shipping it in a decade.

"She didn't say what decade," Andrus often quipped.

The agency quit burying waste in trenches in 1972, storing it instead above-ground on concrete slabs covered with soil. In 1979, the Department of Energy chose the proposed Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., as the final resting place for plutonium waste - including that buried at the INL.

In 1991, the Department of Energy signed an agreement with the state and EPA that laid out a process for deciding what to do about all of its waste, including the buried plutonium-contaminated waste. In 1995, Gov. Phil Batt signed an agreement with the Department of Energy that committed it to begin shipping the plutonium-contaminated waste to New Mexico in 1999, which it did.

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