Idaho, U.S. Battle Over Nuclear Waste Dump

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
April 2, 2002
"Save the Snake River Aquifer" may seem like a strange rallying cry. But activists in Idaho are working to create a ground swell of public opinion to sway the Department of Energy (DOE) on a decision about buried nuclear waste.

At issue are 10 to 12 acres (4 to 5 hectares) of radioactive nuclear waste buried in shallow pits and trenches at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), the second largest nuclear facility in the United States.

The federal government began burying the plutonium-contaminated waste in Idaho beginning in the 1950s and continued doing so until 1970.

The state wants the federal government to come dig it out and move it somewhere else. DOE is thinking about leaving it where it is.

"Plutonium is dangerously radioactive, and stays that way for 240,000 years," said Margaret Stewart, central Idaho coordinator for the Snake River Alliance, a group leading the campaign. "And there's around 2,300 pounds of plutonium buried in those fields."

The radioactive waste is buried on ground that sits atop the Snake River aquifer. Activists and the state are concerned that the plutonium will leach into the aquifer.

The concern is not unfounded. In 1965, the federal government estimated that it would take 80,000 years before contamination from the burial ground would reach the aquifer. In 1995, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences revised the estimate downward to 30 years.

"It's not too late. We still have 23 years left," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "But we have to start now. If we don't do preventive action now, the problem will be irremediable. There will be no fix, even with vastly improved technology."

Potatoes, Beer, and Trout

The Snake River aquifer is huge—about 10,000 square miles (25,000 square kilometers)—and provides both drinking water and irrigation water to several hundred thousand people.

Water for agriculture is critical to the state. Idaho produces 30 percent of the potatoes grown in the United States and 25 percent of the barley used by the nation's beer breweries.

The aquifer also supports the state's trout farming industry, which supplies 75 percent of all commercial rainbow trout in the United States.

Starting in 1954, radioactive waste—known as transuranic, or TRU waste—generated at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapon complex in Colorado was shipped to INEEL.

TRU waste generally consists of protective clothing, equipment, soils, and solidified sludges that contain more than 100 nanocuries of radioactive elements such as plutonium, americium, neptunium, and californium. These wastes are called transuranic because they are heavier than uranium.

The dumping at INEEL was not a high-tech operation. A truck backed up to a large pit and emptied its load of radioactive waste—contained in barrels, cardboard boxes, and wooden crates, many of them breached before they hit the ground—into shallow, unlined trenches and pits.

Once full, the pits were covered with dirt and the ground compacted using heavy machinery. After several floods, during which holes were shot in the floating barrels containing radioactive waste to make them sink, a berm was built to prevent future flooding.

In 1970, the Atomic Energy Commission determined that burying radioactive waste in shallow unlined trenches was not a good idea. Since then, radioactive waste at INEEL has been stored above ground. Low-level waste continues to be buried at INEEL.

Water samples taken from on-site monitoring wells in October 2000 by state and federal officials were found to be contaminated by plutonium. Officials said this doesn't necessarily mean that the buried waste is to blame, that it may be the result of cross-contamination in the field or the lab, or the result of fallout from nuclear atmospheric testing in the 1950s.

Buried Waste in Idaho

The INEEL has 88 acres (36 hectares) of shallow burial grounds for waste; 12 acres are the major cause of concern.

The battle between the state and the federal government is complex. In 1995, Idaho's governor and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed an agreement under which the state of Idaho agreed to accept and provide interim storage for spent nuclear fuel from the Navy and foreign countries. In return, nuclear waste generated during the Cold War would be removed from the state.

DOE claims that the agreement doesn't cover the buried waste; Idaho said it does. The net result, activists say, is that INEEL is spending $60 million a year to move safely stored waste to a permanent repository in New Mexico, while leaving the more dangerous waste in the ground.

"It makes no sense," said Stewart. "Money is being spent to ship waste stored in sealed, monitored containers in state-of-the-art buildings out of the state, while at the same time accepting waste that is six times more radioactive."

Brad Bugger, a spokesman for INEEL, said the 1995 agreement "was never intended to override the process agreed upon in 1991" under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund. "That agreement was between the state, DOE, and EPA," he said. "EPA wasn't a party to the 1995 agreement, and it would have had to have been to supercede the process agreed upon in 1991."

The state disagrees. "It is the state's expectation that DOE is responsible for the removal of all transuranic waste, regardless of location," said Kathleen Trever, head of the state's INEEL oversight office.

"The governor has made it clear to the secretary [of DOE] that all TRU waste must be removed from Idaho," she said, adding that the state's congressional delegation was working to ensure that DOE addresses environmental priorities.

Digging Out the Waste

By law, DOE has to hold public hearings this year and make a decision about what to do with the buried waste by the end of the year. Options range from leaving the waste where it is and capping the pits with concrete, to digging it all up, treating it, and shipping it out of the state.

The state's nuclear activists want it all dug up and stored safely on site. The state wants it dug up and removed from the state.

The fact that no one wants to get close to the highly radioactive waste is a huge stumbling block.

Any digging operation must be performed remotely to avoid worker exposure. There are serious questions as to whether the technology to conduct such an excavation is available.

Plans to excavate a pie-shaped block of soil, barrels, and boxes out of one of the burial fields, known as Pit 9, have encountered numerous setbacks. The cost of digging out this fraction of the waste is estimated at $80 million and projected to be completed in 2004.

So far, more money has been spent on litigation than cleanup, said Makhijani.

"All indications are that the favored option at DOE is to leave it where it is and put a cap on it—essentially fill the pits with concrete and tell us it's not as dangerous as they thought it was," said Makhijani. Capping the pits with concrete is the least expensive option being considered.

In the meantime, activists are traveling throughout the state informing citizens about the issue and encouraging them to make their voices heard at hearings DOE plans to hold in September.

Adding urgency to the campaign is the belief among nuclear activists across the nation that as goes Idaho, so goes the nation.

Radioactive waste buried in shallow pits and trenches is also a problem at federal facilities in Savannah, Georgia; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington; and the Nevada Test Site.

"We just want to help DOE make the right decision on what to do about buried waste," said Stewart. "The time is now, the place is here."

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