By Associated Press
IDAHO FALLS — The Department of Energy holds hearings this month to lay out plans to produce plutonium at the Idaho National Laboratory, but officials acknowledge they still can't answer a key question: what to do with the radioactive waste created by the plant.
The federal government has proposed building a $300 million complex at the eastern Idaho nuclear research site to consolidate production of plutonium-238 and the assembly of the long-lasting batteries that run off heat generated by the decaying radioactive fuel. Currently, production is done at three separate sites: Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and the Idaho complex west of Idaho Falls.
Because the existing inventory of plutonium-238 will be gone in five years, the agency says it needs to produce new supplies for the batteries, which are needed for unspecified national security missions and NASA's deep space exploration vehicles.
The Energy Department says the batteries will not be used in military applications.
The agency wants to make 11 pounds of plutonium-238 annually for 35 years beginning in 2011, and estimates the program will create 20 cubic meters a year of waste such as gloves, rags, tools and other debris contaminated during plutonium production and battery assembly.
The Energy Department wants to encase that radioactive debris in melted glass and store it at the Idaho lab until it can be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., where waste from nuclear weapons production is stored in ancient salt beds 2,150 feet underground.
There are still unresolved questions as to whether the New Mexico waste site can accept radioactive waste that does not come from defense-related programs.
"The only piece that's missing is whether the waste can be confirmed to go to (the New Mexico site)," said Tim Frazier, head of radioisotope power systems for the Energy Department. "We certainly wouldn't start operations without a disposal path for the transuranics, but that's not until 2012."
Frazier said he's confident waste generated at the Idaho site from the battery program will go to the New Mexico waste dump because the facility already accepts similar waste from the Idaho lab and from Los Alamos, where some of the plutonium battery work is now done.
But opponents of the government's plan to begin producing the highly toxic material at the Idaho site say they don't want the Energy Department guessing on such a critical issue as out-of-state waste disposal.
"They are sliding this thing under the door," said Jeremy Maxand, director of the Boise-based watchdog group Snake River Alliance.
DOE schedules Blaine County meeting
The Department of Energy has added a Blaine County stop to its series of public hearings on a proposal to consolidate the production of plutonium at Idaho National Laboratory in Eastern Idaho.
The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, in the Sun Valley Inn's Continental Room.
Comments may also be sent to: Timothy A. Frazier, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, NE-50/GTN, 1000 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20585-1290, or to consolidationEIS@nuclear.energy.gov.
The public has until Aug. 29 to comment on the Energy Department's plutonium production plan. The agency also will hold public meetings July 21 at the Snow King Convention Center in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; July 25 at the Shiloh Inn in Idaho Falls, Idaho; July 26 at the Fort Hall Tribal Business Center in Fort Hall, Idaho; July 27 at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, Idaho; and July 28 at the Red Lion Hotel Downtowners in Boise, Idaho. All meetings begin at 7 p.m.