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.

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