The Idaho National Laboratory wants to build a new nuclear dump so it can continue to bury very radioactive waste above the Snake River Aquifer for fifty more years. What we’ve seen so far on the plan is an environmental assessment so cursory it cannot be used for a decision as serious as whether or not to bury nuclear waste above Idaho’s drinking water.

Here’s some background: When the nuclear navy sends irradiated fuel to Idaho, the ends of the fuel elements are chopped off and disposed of at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. That waste is very radioactive and must be handled remotely. INL’s Advanced Test Reactor is “changed out” every eight years, and remote-handled waste from that process ends up at the RWMC, too. New missions at INL’s Materials and Fuel Complex might also produce remote-handled debris and process waste.

This intensely radioactive waste is the only waste still being buried at RWMC. But the Department of Energy has to stop using that facility by 2017 so it can start covering the 97-acre burial grounds with an earthen cap.

INL has now published a cursory study on its plan to build a new dump to accommodate 150 cubic meters of remote-handled nuclear waste every year for the next fifty. The study states that the dump is necessary for both the nuclear navy and “critical research activities,” though what those activities might be now and in 2067 is not apparent. It looks at three alternatives: shipping the waste to the Nevada Test Site or burying it at one of two sites on INL.

Both locations on INL are on the northeast edge of the Snake River Plain near the base of the Lemhi and Lost River ranges. They are quite close to one another, and both, obviously, are above the upstream end of the Snake River Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for 300,000 Idahoans. The current flawed study says one is slightly superior to the other. It is, for instance, 16 feet higher above Idaho’s drinking water than the other and for some unexplained reason “the potential for cumulative effects to groundwater from other sources of groundwater contaminants is less.” The study denies that either site “presents a potential for significant impact to groundwater.” At the new dump, the waste would be put in steel liners inside buried concrete vaults. The vaults would be surrounded by sand so water could drain down past them.

Given how important the Snake River Aquifer is to this region, the study’s most significant conclusion is that “the potential exists for contaminants to be released from the remote-handled LLW disposal facility at either of the two candidate sites following the closure period (several thousand years in the future) and be transported downward through the vadose zone [the dry area between the earth’s surface and groundwater] into the aquifer.”

The Department of Energy has extended the comment period on the current assessment to November 21.Tell the DOE what it must do next is conclude that any major federal action that poses any risk to a resource as crucial as the Snake River Aquifer requires a full environmental impact statement that should include:

  • full analysis of the current and future impacts of remote-handled waste disposal
  • full discussion of past and projected remote-handled waste
  • full analysis of cumulative effects to groundwater from remote-handled waste disposal
  • full analysis of transportation risks if the waste is shipped to the Nevada Test Site