INL Waste Cleanup

The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was built in 1949 on the northeast edge of the Snake River Plain. The Site lies near the base of the Pioneer, Lost River, and Lemhi mountain ranges. People have lived in the area for 10,000 years, and INL is on a part of the indigenous lands of the Shoshone and Bannock peoples, who have ceremonial sites there still.INL sits on the upstream end of the Snake River Aquifer. The aquifer, which underlies 10,000 square miles of Idaho’s high desert, holds as much water as Lake Erie. After it 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. In 1991 the Environmental Protection Agency designated the Snake River Aquifer a “sole source aquifer” because it is the only source of drinking water for 300,000 Idahoans.

INL was initially established to foster commercial nuclear power development. The Site grew to nine major facilities scattered across 890 square miles of eastern Idaho’s Arco Desert as its mission expanded. Significant added activities were nuclear waste storage and disposal, primarily of plutonium-contaminated waste from the Rocky Flats plant; reactor development and operator training for the nuclear navy; and reprocessing of nuclear Navy spent fuel to recover highly enriched uranium for use in production reactors in the U.S.’s nuclear weapons complex. Nuclear activities at INL have contaminated the aquifer, and INL was added to the National Priorities List for Superfund cleanup in 1989.

A fundamental precept of the Superfund law is that the polluter pays. In the case of INL, the polluters were numerous federal government contractors, so taxpayers paid for the contamination and are now paying for the cleanup. Another Superfund preference is that one place shouldn’t be cleaned up by moving its pollution to another. That means that a lot of contamination at INL has been consolidated in a single disposal cell. Perhaps the most important thing of all to remember about “cleanup,” particularly of radioactive contamination, which spreads so easily, is that the pollution doesn’t disappear from the face of the earth. Instead, it is contained, to try to protect the environment and humans from it.

Because of the size of INL and the diversity of its pollution sources, INL cleanup was divided into ten “Waste Area Groups” (the nine major facilities plus the aquifer itself and any pollution outside the major areas), which were in turn divided into more than eighty “operating units.” Because of the breadth and complexity of problems and cleanup initiatives across the Site, the need for public involvement and independent monitoring is constant. INL has made some significant cleanup progress in a number of areas, in no small part because of public and official pressure spearheaded and supported by the Snake River Alliance. But much remains to be done.

Two of the greatest threats to the Snake River Aquifer are direct results of Idaho’s participation in the nuclear weapons production complex.

Plutonium-contaminated waste from the Rocky Flats trigger factory was buried in unlined pits at INL and has been a matter of public concern since the 1960s. As information began surfacing about buried waste contamination reaching the aquifer, Alliance members and Idaho state officials pushed steadily for its exhumation. Those efforts reached fruition with the 2008 decision to dig up 5.69 acres of the burial grounds. So far, the Site has exhumed 3.11 acres of waste targeted for removal from above the aquifer. The Alliance is watching the ongoing exhumation very carefully and we will continue to be actively engaged even as the 97-acre burial grounds are covered with a “cap” to impede contaminant migration.

The other major threat now being addressed is from liquid high-level waste stored in buried tanks above the aquifer. High-level waste comes from reprocessing irradiated nuclear reactor fuel and contains 99% of the radioactivity that results from nuclear bomb production. INL is one of the three DOE sites that reprocessed spent nuclear fuel for the production complex. Most of its liquid high-level waste has been dried and is stored in above ground stainless steel bins. The Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) was to have removed the final 900,000 gallons of waste from the buried tanks and dry it, too. But as the Site was trying to bring the IWTU up to the high temperatures needed to dry the liquid, the system failed and is being substantially redesigned. So far, the IWTU has cost $700 million and has not yet operated. Eventually, the entire reprocessing facility will also be “capped.”

All told, cleanup at the Idaho National Laboratory will cost more than $22 billion and take about half a century. Even after all of that, Idaho’s land and drinking water will be polluted with nuclear contamination until the end of time

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