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Our Radioactive Backyard through Artists’ Eyes

Photo by Ralph Maughan

Big Southern Butte is on the southwest boundary of the Idaho National Laboratory

On Thursday, October 16, Snake River Alliance members and supporters can visit the Idaho National Laboratory, which was established in 1949 and covers 890 square miles of eastern Idaho’s high desert plain. Alliance Site tours are excellent opportunities to get a real sense of what has happened and is happening at the Idaho National Lab. We’re particularly welcoming visual and language artists on this year’s tour who can go home and communicate to others what they see and learn. But everyone is welcome to join us. Here’s what we’ll see first-hand.

We’ll get checked in and badged at 9 a.m. in front of the Experimental Breeder Reactor I. You can see two hulking nuclear-powered airplane engines across the parking lot. For obvious reasons, they never operated in the sky, but unshielded, ground-level experiments between 1955 and 1961 left a fair amount of contamination here in Idaho.

Our first stop will be to go into the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project. The work at AMWTP is to sort, compact, and package low-level and plutonium-contaminated waste to ship off-site. Some of the waste processed there comes from other Department of Energy sites – it’s treated and is then sent back out of Idaho. Right now AMWTP is operating 24/7 and is primarily processing low-level waste because two recent accidents have closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the disposal site for plutonium waste.

After AMWTP, we’ll go next door to the Radioactive Waste Management Complex, where plutonium from weapons production was buried above the Snake River Aquifer and is now being exhumed.

Our next stop will be the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, where there is some of the most radioactive waste on earth. That’s because intensely radioactive spent nuclear fuel was sent to INTEC to be dissolved in acid so highly enriched uranium could be removed. Before we see waste storage or handling, though, tour members can buy a really quick lunch in the INTEC cafeteria. Then we’ll go into Building 666, which contains the largest spent fuel pool in the DOE complex. In the same building we’ll learn about current efforts to remove pyrophoric sodium from remote-handled low-level and plutonium waste in a heavily shielded hot cell. When we’re at INTEC, we’ll also be able to see where spent fuel that’s been removed from water storage is stored in dry casks. We’ll also see concrete bins where dried high-level radioactive acid waste is stored and the facility that, it is hoped, will finish drying the last of the high-level waste that’s now in buried tanks.

We’ll wrap up between 3pm and 4pm.

All in all, a tour of the Idaho National is a long, challenging day, filled with juxtapositions. You will be close to but protected from very dangerous material. The Arco Desert, at the base of the Lemhi and Lost River ranges, is one of the most beautiful parts of our state. Humans have lived there for well over 10,000 years. Beneath it, sixty years of nuclear contamination threatens the sole source of drinking water for 300,000 Idahoans downstream. Hazards have been created and accumulated and are now being cleaned up. It’s a big story that can be told in so many ways. Start off by seeing for yourself.

Pocatello members of the Snake River Alliance are gathering at 6 pm on Wednesday, October 15, at Portneuf Valley Brewing (615 South 1st Street) for a community dinner. Enjoy good food, good company, and hear a little bit more about the tour. The Alliance can help organize car pools for people who do not live in eastern Idaho. If you have questions or know you would like to attend either the tour or dinner, please contact our nuclear program director, Beatrice Brailsford, at

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