Commissioners oppose nuke waste plant
By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer
Questioning the U.S. Department of Energys 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 waste1.8 million cubic feet
worthis stored above ground, and is not considered to pose any immediate threat to
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
groups director, Margaret Stewart, and volunteer Franny Cheston made three main
· 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 BNFLs track record indicates that the company cannot
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 theyre 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. "Theres 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
dont 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
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 wastes
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 dont 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.