Gloves and Booties…and Bombs – Beatrice Brailsford

We’ve heard recently from members of the Governor’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) Commission about waste from the Rocky Flats bomb plant in Colorado that was dumped above the Snake River Aquifer.  It’s been referred to as “gloves and booties.”  Well, yes, there are gloves and booties … and so much more.

The Subsurface Disposal Area at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was first used in 1952 as a burial ground for waste produced by activities at the National Reactor Testing Station, the original name of the INL.  It was located in a low spot on the Arco Desert, 590 feet above the underground Snake River Aquifer, which lies beneath 10,000 square miles of southern Idaho’s high desert, holds as much water as Lake Erie, and is the only source of drinking water for 300,000 people.  Most of the early waste was industrial trash contaminated with radioactivity—paper, metal, dirt, construction debris, and other garbage—generated by INL reactor research. Some waste contained hazardous chemicals as well.

In 1954, waste from Rocky Flats started coming to Idaho.  Until 1970, the Rocky Flats waste, which was contaminated with more than a metric ton of plutonium-239 – more than 250 bombs’ worth – was buried in unlined pits.  The US stopped burying plutonium-contaminated waste in 1970, and the waste that came to Idaho after that was stored above ground.

Rocky Flats was where the plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs were machined.  Plutonium is a transuranic, meaning it is a human-made element above uranium on the periodic chart.  Transuranics are heavier than uranium, and many of them are hazardous for a very long time.  In fact, US policy is to dispose of transuranic waste in a deep geologic repository because it is dangerous for so long.  Plutonium-239, for instance, remains hazardous for 240,000 years.   A lot of other material from Rocky Flats was dangerous, too, either because of radioactivity or chemical hazards.  Over the years, the Rocky Flats waste streams included process waste such as sludge, graphite molds and fines, roaster oxides, and evaporator salts; equipment; and other waste incidental to production.  That last category includes the gloves and booties we’ve been hearing about.  They were worn to protect workers from all the hazardous substances in the plant and were also contaminated.

Over the years, the Subsurface Disposal Area grew to 97 acres, 35 of which held waste. Within the SDA, waste was disposed of in 21 unlined pits, 58 unlined trenches, 21 soil vault rows, and on Pad A, an above grade disposal area.  In 1989, the entire INL was named to the Superfund list of the most contaminated places in the country because of the threat it poses to the Snake River Aquifer.

The radionuclide contaminants of concern driving cleanup at the burial grounds are americium-241, carbon-14, cesium-137, lead-210, plutonium-239 and -240, radium-226 and -228, strontium-90, and technetium-99.   The latest peak risk for radionuclides will come in the year 3010.  The chemical contaminants of concern are carbon tetrachloride, 1,4-dioxane, tetrachloroethylene, and trichloroethylene.  The latest peak risk for chemical contaminants will be in the year 2141.  Groundwater contaminants of concerns are iodine-129, carbon tetrachloride, 1,4-dioxane, methylene chloride, nitrate, tetrachloroethylene, and trichloroethylene, with a peak risk in the year 2870.  Other contaminants of concern for the groundwater include actinium-227, neptunium-237, protactinium-231, uranium-233, -234, -235, -236, and -238.

Superfund cleanup at the burial grounds focuses both on removal or containment of the sources of contamination and containment of contamination that has already been released.  There is nothing that can be done about the contamination that has or will in future reach the aquifer.  All told, targeted waste from 5.69 acres will be exhumed.  Solvents have already seriously contaminated the water beneath the burial grounds.  In recent years, hundreds of thousands of gallons of solvent vapors have been vacuumed out of the soil before they can reach the aquifer.  That at least limits future contamination.  Some of the more mobile contaminants, such as technetium-99 and iodine-129, have been grouted in place.  The last step at the burial grounds will be to build a 97-acre graded “cap” – aka Mt. Plutonium – over the whole Subsurface Disposal Area to try to keep precipitation out of the waste left behind so even more of it isn’t driven down to the aquifer. The whole endeavor was estimated to cost $1.3 billion in 2008, but it is already clear it will cost more.  Mt. Plutonium will be in place by about 2125.

Officialdom has long tended to tell the public that the risk from nuclear activities is less than it turns out to be.  Contamination from the waste at INL’s burial grounds has done grave harm to Idaho’s drinking water.  It must not be minimized as “gloves and booties.”  We will continue to make bad public policy choices if we continue to blind ourselves to the mistakes we’ve already made.

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