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For the week of Mar. 1 through Mar. 7, 2000

Commissioners oppose nuke waste plant


By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer

Questioning the U.S. Department of Energy’s priorities in nuclear waste cleanup, the Blaine County Board of Commissioners on Monday agreed to publicly oppose construction of a mixed-waste treatment plant at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), near Arco.

That opposition will come in the form of a letter to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, stating that construction should be put on hold until other alternatives are considered and until progress is made in cleaning up buried waste at INEEL leaking into the Snake River aquifer.

The proposed treatment plant, to include an incinerator, would put mixed nuclear and chemical waste into a form suitable for permanent disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. That waste—1.8 million cubic feet worth—is stored above ground, and is not considered to pose any immediate threat to the environment.

However, the Department of Energy has an agreement with the state of Idaho to build and begin operating some form of treatment facility for the mixed waste by 2003, and to have it out of the state by 2018.

Construction of the facility cannot begin until its contractor, British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd. (BNFL), obtains air quality and hazardous-waste treatment permits from the state of Idaho.

The commissioners made their decision following a presentation by two representatives from the Snake River Alliance, a statewide nuclear watchdog group. The group’s director, Margaret Stewart, and volunteer Franny Cheston made three main points:

 That incineration of mixed waste containing plutonium threatens the health of workers and nearby residents.

 That any money available for cleanup at INEEL should be first used to process the buried wastes.

 That BNFL’s track record indicates that the company cannot be trusted.

The activists’ presentation came at a time when BNFL is becoming enveloped in a scandal alleging falsification of safety data. Investigations by the British government found the company to have manipulated specifications on plutonium fuel rods being shipped to power plants in Switzerland, Germany and Japan. Faulty fuel rods were returned to BNFL by a Swiss plant. (See story below).

"BNFL has very few customers left in the world," Stewart told the commissioners. "And so they’re looking toward the U.S."

The proposed treatment facility at INEEL is designed to incinerate chemicals while filtering out radioactive particulates. BNFL has stated that airborne emissions from the incinerator will contain only carbon dioxide and water.

But Stewart called the proposed facility a "totally untried technology," telling the commissioners that a prototype had never been built.

"They claim their filtering device will take care of that [emissions] problem," she said. "There’s no proof to that effect."

Cheston pointed out that if the company is struggling financially, it will feel pressured to put the facility into operation even if its pollution-control devices don’t work as planned.

Following the two activists’ presentation, Commissioner Mary Ann Mix stated she did not want to flatly oppose the proposed treatment facility, but felt that the Department of Energy should first allocate its money toward cleaning up the buried wastes.

The DOE has denied that building the facility would appreciably slow the effort to clean up those wastes. In an interview yesterday, INEEL spokesman Brad Bugger acknowledged that there is a "trade-off" in budgeting between the two projects. However, he said the pace of research on new technologies and on the buried waste’s effects on the environment sets a limit on how fast the clean-up could be accelerated.

Also, he pointed out, the DOE is under legal obligations to move the above-ground waste out of Idaho. He said that in addition to its agreement with the state of Idaho, the DOE is required by the Federal Facilities Compliance Act to develop a treatment schedule for its above-ground waste.

"We don’t have an option," he said.

Bugger said the laboratory has begun to pump out vaporized solvents contained in the buried waste that are migrating into the aquifer.

"What our research is showing is that the biggest threat to the aquifer is not plutonium but the volatile organic compounds," Bugger said.

 

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