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Idaho National Laboratory

Summary: The Idaho National Laboratory has had four primary functions within the Department of Energy complex: reactor development and operator training for the nuclear navy; ongoing nuclear waste storage and disposal; materials production for the US nuclear weapons complex; and reactor research. Accidental and intentional pollution from these four activities has led to a fifth—environmental cleanup—and INL was named a Superfund site in 1989. Current attempts to jump start nuclear power may restart the production-pollution cycle at INL. To avert this will require the kind of public opposition that stopped the construction of three nuclear weapons plants and a plutonium incinerator at the Site.

Background and Current Situation: INL was built in 1949 on land that had been used during WWII as a gunnery range by the US Navy. It covers 890 square miles (about 2/3 the area of Rhode Island) of southern Idaho’s high desert plain. Beneath that plain lies the Snake River Aquifer, one of the largest underground bodies of water in North America. After the aquifer flows beneath the Site, it continues westward, providing water for the Magic Valley, one of the state’s richest agricultural regions with a growing population and diversifying economy.

Reactor development and operator training for the nuclear navy: The prototype for the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, was built right in the middle of the Arco Desert. A total of four nuclear navy prototypes were built at INL and were used to train thousands of navy personnel. Many of this country’s most entrenched nuclear proponents came up through the nuclear navy, serving “aboard ship” in Idaho. All the prototype reactors at the Naval Reactors Facility have been shut down, though INL remains the nuclear navy’s final port of call: all irradiated, or “spent,” fuel from naval vessels continues to come to Idaho. All planned cleanup at the NRF is complete.

Ongoing nuclear waste storage and disposal: In addition to spent fuel (including the core debris from Three Mile Island), nuclear waste from INL and other DOE facilities, notably the plutonium trigger factory at Rocky Flats, CO, is stored or has been disposed of at the Site. Millions of cubic feet of radioactive waste has in turn contaminated tens of millions of cubic feet of soil and the Snake River Aquifer itself. One of the most environmentally damaging practices was burial in unlined pits. Throughout its operating history, Rocky Flats sent hundreds of thousands of barrels, cardboard boxes, and wooden crates of plutonium-contaminated waste to Idaho because Colorado had strict disposal limits for such dangerous material. Until 1970 the plutonium-contaminated waste was buried in unlined pits and trenches, and radioactive and substantial chemical pollution from the burial grounds has reached the aquifer. Other material that continues to be buried there includes parts from INL’s own reactors, parts of the irradiated fuel assemblies from the nuclear navy, and the sludge from the Site’s most contaminated spent fuel storage pool. Plutonium-contaminated waste sent from Rocky Flats after 1970 is stored above ground. The above-ground waste is slowly being sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. A small percentage of buried waste with substantial plutonium and similar radionuclides plus the solvents that help speed them toward the aquifer has been dug up. The DOE continues to bury “low-level” radioactive waste in an unlined pit at the burial grounds even as Superfund analyses prove the necessity of digging up more of the waste already buried there.

Materials production for the US nuclear weapons complex: Reprocessing is the must-take step between a nuclear reactor and a nuclear bomb, and the US started reprocessing during the Manhattan Project to remove plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel. At INL, spent fuel, much of it from the nuclear navy, was reprocessed by dissolving it in heated, liquid acid to extract the highly-enriched uranium. The HEU was then shipped to Oak Ridge, TN, where it was made into driver fuel for nuclear bomb production reactors in South Carolina. Millions of gallons of highly radioactive liquid remained in Idaho. Much of the liquid was calcined, or dried; more than 4,000 cubic meters of calcine are stored in stainless steel and concrete bins. Before it was dried, the waste was stored in eleven 300,000-gallon buried tanks. The tanks themselves did not leak, but the piping around them has, causing substantial soil pollution at the tank farm. Some of the liquid waste, about 900,000 gallons, was never calcined. The DOE intended to abandon some of it in the tanks at INL and much more in tanks in Washington and South Carolina. A court challenge by the Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and the Yakama Nation forced improvements in that plan and ultimately led to cleaner tanks in Idaho. Almost all of the 900,000 gallons will be removed and dried. In addition to the tanked waste, billions of gallons of radioactive and chemically hazardous liquid waste from reprocessing were injected directly into the aquifer until public pressure, led by the Alliance, halted that practice in the mid-1980s. The first President Bush formally stopped reprocessing in 1992. Until then, the reprocessing plant was the single largest air polluter at INL.

Reactor research: Reactor research was the driving force behind the establishment of the National Reactor Testing Station, as INL was first known. Including the nuclear navy’s reactors, a total of 52 reactors have been built at INL, the largest concentration anywhere in the world. INL’s reactor “fleet” included two breeder reactors (designed to produce significant amounts of plutonium), a reactor that supported a misguided attempt to develop a nuclear airplane, and the SL-1, an army reactor that exploded and killed three operators. The SL-1 explosion was accidental; other reactor explosions were intentional. The Advanced Test Reactor began operating on July 2, 1967, and continues to produce medical isotopes and irradiate test material. Though in need of substantial upgrades, the ATR is now a focal point for a nuclear resurgence at the Site. One INL proposal meeting with substantial public opposition is to consolidate plutonium-238 production there. Plutonium-powered batteries are already assembled there, and neptunium-237 that can be irradiated to produce Pu-238, a particularly dangerous form, is being shipped to Idaho from South Carolina. Other old reactors at the Site are in line for decommissioning.

Update: Plans to clean up the worst contamination at INL will be made in 2006 (the reprocessing plant) and 2007 (the burial grounds). INL is the lead laboratory for nuclear research, for both reactors and reprocessing, and for a number of years it has been pursuing pyroprocessing, a reprocessing technique most suitable for fast breeder reactor spent fuel.

To view INL “incident reports” about accidents at the lab, click here.

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