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Spirit of the Valley
The Magazine of Mountain Wellness

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OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2005 - THE HARVEST & ENVIRONMENT ISSUE

 

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In YOUR Backyard?

By Craig Wolfrom, on assignment for the Snake River Alliance

I’ve just returned from a special tour at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) with the Snake River Alliance (SRA). The Bush administration has been taking steps toward consolidating the production of plutonium-238 (pu-238) powered batteries at INL. Pu-238 batteries would be used for both NASA deep space missions and secret national security operations. Seventeen of us toured INL to better understand and question the Federal Government’s plans to consolidate the production of plutonium-238 to INL. What I saw and learned that day scared me beyond the fears I already had regarding nuclear energy.

What is Pu-238
Pu-238 is a man-made element created in a nuclear reactor. Once created, pu-238 generates constant heat through radioactive decay, which can be transformed into electricity. Though the amount of energy produced by these batteries is small, the benefit with using pu-238 is that the minute energy it does create can be used to run satellites and other electrical devices on earth or in space for nearly 100 years, austensibly without maintenance and in harsh, remote conditions. While these batteries have been in production for over 30 years and are currently being used by deep space satellites, some satellites have not made it into space, but rather exploded in the upper atmosphere upon launch causing pu-238 to be distributed around the earth. At least eight satellites, both US and Soviet, that did reach orbit, burned up on reentries vaporizing the on-board plutonium. The detriment of these long lasting batteries is that one inhaled particle of pu-238 can cause cancer in a living organism and the wastes created by producing plutonium remains radioactive and harmful to the environment for generations to come.

Fed’s vs. Idahoans
The reasons for the consolidation of plutonium-238 production to the INL site make sense to those in the federal government and Department of Energy (DOE): having the plutonium in one location reduces its interstate transportation and thus the threat of accidents and terrorism; it keeps the production area in a remote region of the country; and though new facilities would need to be made to create the actual batteries, pu-238 would be produced in an already existing reactor. What makes no sense to many of the citizens of Idaho is that the U.S. government and the state of Idaho, its congressmen, senators, and governor, have made the decision to continue manufacturing nuclear materials for energy purposes against the opinion of their constituents who have proclaimed a loud, “NO!” in environmental impact statements, online polls, and letters to their “representatives” and newspapers around the state.


Inside the INL
Arriving in the parking lot outside INL’s Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 at 9am (EBR-1 was the first nuclear power plant to produce electricity in the world), there are signs promoting the rich history that EBR-1 represents to the people of Idaho and the United State of America. In reality, the signs forget to mention that the first nuclear meltdown occurred here in 1955—just four years after its debut. Radioactive gas was blown out of the building from this accident and the plant was so contaminated it was permanently shut down. As I stood next to EBR-1, I wondered how a contaminated reactor could be a tourist attraction?
17 of us hop the tour bus. I immediately learned that our tour was not going to be like others in that we were granted permission to visit the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) where pu-238 is scheduled to be produced. We cut to the heart of the matter and head straight to ATR. First, as we enter the northern section of INL we are stopped and checked through the security gate by one guard with a single pistol.

We leave the bus and walk into an administrative type building, pass through a checkpoint (without being patted down or subjected to a metal detector), and then proceed down a long sidewalk outside toward the ATR building—which isn’t hard to miss as the large writing on its southern façade advertises, “ADVANCED TEST REACTOR.” We arrive at ATR where two more guards, each with their own pistol, protect the turnstile door to the building.

Once inside ATR, I took notice of all the radioactive warning signs restricting entry and movement and describing biohazards. It felt like a place a human shouldn’t be—as if death were coming toward me at a faster pace. Still, naively we continued down a short hallway, passed through a small airlock, and into the vast warehouse that includes the reactor. It quickly became evident that the reactor is ninety percent below ground. Only its top, a circular structure about fifty feet in diameter with pipes and metal parts everywhere, was visible. The cement surrounding the reactor is painted gray with yellow tape and paint marking restricted areas—the facility was spotlessly clean.

We spent 45 minutes listening to an explanation on how this reactor works all the while surrounded by the radioactive signs that again started scaring me for my safety and health. I, like others on the tour ended up assuming we are not vulnerable to radiation as the scientists leading the discussion did not seem to be too bothered. At one point I peer into the control room and was instantly reminded of the cartoon character, Homer Simpson, at work at his nuclear power plant as one of the engineers I saw was reclining in his office chair, arms up with hands behind his head, speaking casually with a fellow employee; to his credit, the reactor was not operating. Leaving the reactor, we were put through a full body radiation check—no alarms sounded assuring us that the level of radiation we had received was not enough to require decontamination.

You’d look a little worried while being scanned for radiation too...

 

Back to the busses without a lull in the tour, we headed south past EBR-1 to visit the waste cleanup facility. Between the late 40’s and early 70’s, INL filled hundreds upon thousand of barrels with nuclear waste in the form of radioactive sludge, tools, gloves, and suits which were dumped into unlined earthen pits nearly 600 feet above the Snake River Aquifer. Ninety-nine percent of the nuclear and hazardous waste dumped in the Idaho desert were from weapons production at Rocky Flatts, Colorado.In recent years, the DOE has spent millions of dollars in both failed and successful attempts at cleaning up this federally designated Super Fund Site. A scientist on our tour pointed out that even with these cleanup attempts radioactive waste has recently been detected in clay layers 110 and 250 feet below the pits—halfway to the aquifer; he said there is little anyone can do to remove this contamination. The current cleanup process being employed by a contracted private company digs up the old barrels, opens them up to reveal their content and then decides if the materials are radioactive wastes that last a very long time and pose a long-term risk to Idaho’s water, or other types of waste, often called low level waste, that is dangerous for a shorter period of time. If the waste is long lasting (technically referred to at “Transuranic” waste) it is repackaged into “safer” containers and set aside for transportation to nuclear storage facilities like the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico. If the waste is lower level, it is repackaged and put into containers and will most likely be reburied at INL.

As we toured the waste cleanup facility, the wind began picking up and rocked the bus back and forth. I noticed construction workers assembling an air tight facility that was to aid in the removal of waste from these pits. The wind that is so common out at INL poses a risk of spreading radioactive materials as they are unearthed. I was surprised to see that these workers were not wearing protective clothing. Here were unprotected workers building an airtight structure that will be used to inspect and move nuclear waste from the same ground they were working on—a visual statement made my INL on worker safety program. I was glad to at least be in a somewhat enclosed bus. Our bus took us back to EBR-1 for the end of our tour.

My Opinion
Nuclear energy and weapons production should avoided—always. Let the history of nuclear energy production in Idaho be the textbook example as to why human kind should not attend to the matter of producing energy or weapons by nuclear means. Idaho’s nuclear history is one not only filled with tragic mistakes, For me, the reasons for Idaho (and the world for that matter) to be nuclear free became crystal clear on this tour at INL.

Nuclear waste remains radioactive and hazardous to living objects for thousands if not millions of years. Why the Bush administration, DOE, and INL plan on spending billions of dollars creating this type of waste to build batteries for deep space missions and potentially secret military uses is beyond my comprehension. Do the math, we’re talking about $60 million to produce enough plutonium to power one lightbulb! Yes, we may learn something from a deep space mission to Pluto (even though it is becoming clearer and clearer that this plutonium would be used almost entirely for secret national security missions), but wouldn’t the poorer people of our nation, or the educational system, or the environmental health of our planet be better off if we did not pursue this course of action? Couldn’t the billions of dollars slated to create these batteries be better spent on improving international relations?

The state of Idaho will argue that the waste byproduct will be taken beyond our state’s borders—how is this ok? Idahoans will then be responsible for creating and then sending radioactive waste to sit in another fellow American’s backyard. The state of Idaho will argue that 400+ construction jobs and 75 permanent jobs will be created by this project—75 jobs that will jeopardize thousands of other Idahoans lives. We could create thousands of new jobs – nurses, teacher, police, firefighters – with $60 million a year.

At DOE public hearings on the pu-238/INL issue, some expressed concerns regarding terrorists gaining access to INL or the Advanced Test Reactor. INL used to have military helicopters on site ready to assist with a threatening situation. Today, INL relies on Mountain Home Air Force base for air support. While our tour director repeated that the military staff at INL receive numerous awards at combat competitions, in my opinion, from what I saw all that stood between a terrorist and these well labeled structures was a sagebrush desert and three guardsmen each with their own pistol.

If you are worried about pu-238 being blown about the state(s), be assured that the wind howls across the desert between Arco and Idaho Falls every day. If the containment features at the INL facilities fail, radioactive materials could vent and be picked up by this wind.

My fellow Idahoans, Americans, humans, do you really want plutonium-238 in your backyard—on earth? The disaster at EBR-1 was not the only meltdown at INL. In 1961, a human caused explosion in the control room at SL-1 killed three workers and set off an uncontrolled chain reaction spreading radioactive material across much of the land surrounding INL. Outside Idaho, the results have not been much better. In 1963, the Fermi Atomic Power Plant outside Chicago experienced a partial meltdown; had it been a full meltdown, an area the size of Pennsylvania could have been contaminated. In 1971, an accident at the Northern States Power Plant in Monticello, Minnesota caused fifty thousand barrels of contaminated water to leak into the Mississippi River. In 1979, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant nearly experienced a full-scale nuclear meltdown. In 1986, the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded sending a radioactive cloud containing plutonium among other deadly elements as far as the Mediterranean. And as recently as 2002, it was discovered that the six inch containment vessel on a commercial reactor in Ohio had corroded all the way down to the inner lining, which was only a half an inch of stainless steel. If that discovery had not been made, an accident equal to Chernobyl may likely have been realized here in the US.

If you do not use your voice to stop the planned consolidation of plutonium-238 to the Idaho National Laboratory—you put yourself and everyone around you in great jeopardy. Most Idahoans have expressed concern against this issue—yet our representatives promote it, so write to these “elected officials” and tell them, “NO” to nuclear anything in Idaho or the United States. Please join the momentum opposing this and other dangerous and dirty nuclear projects in Idaho, while we support clean and renewable resources to power our state’s future.

Senators:
Craig, Larry- (R - ID)
520 HART SENATE OFFICE BUILDING WASHINGTON DC 20510
(202) 224-2752
Web Form: craig.senate.gov/email/

Crapo, Michael- (R - ID)
239 DIRKSEN SENATE OFFICE BUILDING WASHINGTON DC 20510
(202) 224-6142
Web Form: crapo.senate.gov/contact/email.cfm

Congressmen:
C.L. Butch Otter
1711 Longworth,
Washington, DC 20515
Phone Number: 202-225-6611
Fax Number: 202-225-3029

Mike Simpson
Boise Office
802 West Bannock, Suite 600
Boise, ID 83702
Phone: 208-334-1953
Fax: 208-334-9533

Washington, DC, Office
1339 Longworth
Washington, D.C. 20515
Phone: 202-225-5531
Fax: 202-225-8216

Governor Dirk Kempthorne:

Office of the Governor
700 West Jefferson, 2nd Floor
PO Box 83720
Boise, Idaho 83720-0034
Tel: 208-334-2100
Fax: 208-334-2175
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Craig Wolfrom studied photography and writing at Montana State University—Bozeman. He has been working as a freelance photographer and writer since 1999. Craig uses his creative skills to educate and inspire people to live in more sustainable ways. Currently, he lives in Hailey, Idaho, with his wife and daughter.

Mission: The Snake River Alliance is an Idaho-based grassroots group working through research, education, and community advocacy for peace and justice, the end to nuclear weapons production activities, and responsible solutions to nuclear waste and contamination.

Vision: To live in a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons, waste, and production, with policy decisions made through a fair and open process.

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For more information on the Snake River Alliance, go to: www.snakeriveralliance.org