Is nuclear energy inherently evil and deadly, or practical and safe?
The debate has resurfaced in Idaho with the Department of Energy's proposal to produce plutonium-238 at the Idaho National Laboratory, located in the sagebrush desert between Idaho Falls and Arco.
Residents of resort towns like Sun Valley and Jackson, Wyo., have expressed outrage over the proposal and promise to fight it to the end.
But a pro-nuclear energy group, Idaho Falls-based Coalition 21, has blasted the opposition for buying into what they call "propaganda" created by nuclear watchdogs like the Snake River Alliance.
While Coalition 21 supports the proposal, it's under one condition: The INL must clean up and remove waste accumulated from past projects.
"In particular, DOE must provide the legal as well as the technical basis for proper disposal of the resultant wastes," states Coalition 21's president, John Tanner.
The DOE wants to consolidate Pu-238 production at the INL. The production, which could begin as early as 2012 and continue for 30 years, would require the construction of a new $300 million facility.
The proposal is currently immersed in a draft Environmental Impact Statement study, which examines the project's potential impacts on the environment, public health and wildlife. One component of the draft EIS is public input, which will continue until the end of August.
Last month, the DOE held a series of public hearings in Idaho and one in Jackson to collect public feedback required by the EIS.
During a July 20 hearing in Sun Valley, 32 public comments were issued. Only two speakers supported the DOE's project.
One of those supporters was Martin Huebner, a nuclear engineer, former INL employee, and member of Coalition 21. Huebner, who has a home in Elkhorn, clashed with members of the public throughout the meeting and at one point became so angry that he raised his middle finger to the crowd.
Huebner's frustration boiled over from what he labeled "the rudest, most disruptive, most ill-mannered, obscenely obnoxious audience I have ever encountered."
He continued to say that people who live in resort towns tend to "think perception is reality," and digest misinformation "like it's caviar."
Coalition 21's motto is "Facts not fear."
Several local residents who addressed the DOE representatives in Sun Valley apologized for the hostility but also said it was necessary to make it clear that the Wood River Valley would not stand for the proposal.
Huebner, who calls himself a "hard-core environmentalist," said the atmosphere was much different at a DOE meeting in Idaho Falls. According to the Idaho Falls Post Register, about 240 people attended that city's hearing, and at least half of the public speakers supported the project.
"The people over here in Idaho Falls are probably the most educated (about nuclear energy)," Huebner said. "They don't worry because they know all of these allegations are totally false."
Huebner said his love for the environment fuels his support for nuclear energy.
"Nuclear energy is environmentally benign, it's safe," he said.
Tanner believes nuclear energy and plutonium are completely misunderstood.
"I think the risks are exaggerated and totally ridiculous," said Tanner, a physical chemist who worked at the INL for 17 years. "We think it's a good project and we'd like to have it in Idaho."
The Snake River Alliance claims they are not opposed outright to nuclear energy, and they are not spreading misinformation.
"This whole idea about fear mongering, I find that insulting," said Vanessa Fry, development director of the Snake River Alliance. "We're just trying to educate the public as much as they are."
Pu-238, unlike Pu-239, is a non-weapons-grade form of the man-made, radioactive element. It has a half-life of 87 years, compared to Pu-239's 24,000 years. Basically, the heat emitted by Pu-238 acts as a long-lasting, self-sustainable generator, making it an ideal power source for deep-sea and space craft equipment. The DOE claims the material will be used for NASA satellites and national security missions, and will not be used for military purposes. The exact use, however, remains classified.
While the half-life of Pu-238 is miniscule compared to Pu-239, it's toxicity levels are not—Pu-238 is 270 times more radioactive than Pu-239. It is so toxic that it is believed that inhaling a speck of Pu-238 can cause cancer. But many wonder what exactly a "speck" is.
Rick Poeton, a health physicist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said that when examining the dangers of plutonium exposure, several factors need to be considered: the state of the plutonium (metal, chipped, fine dust, etc); the amount; and the duration of the exposure.
"If you have plutonium as a metal sitting on a table next to you, it's pretty harmless," Poeton said.
Over the years, several nuclear scientists working in facilities all over the world have been exposed to plutonium.
But Poeton said he is "not aware of any cases (in the world) where someone's death has been related to their plutonium exposure." That includes cancer, he added.
"There are people in the Department of Energy and Department of Defense businesses who have been exposed (to plutonium) and carry the stuff inside their bodies now," Poeton said. "Frankly, right now ... (they have) no adverse health effects."
Tanner was exposed to plutonium while working at the INL, but claims his health was not affected by the incident.
But Poeton said that is no reason not to be concerned about the risks of plutonium. He said plutonium tests conducted on animals have proven fatal.
He added that since plutonium is heavy and does not travel well, once inhaled in the lungs, it sticks.
"It has the potential to cause a lot of damage," he said.
And that potential is what concerns the Snake River Alliance.
"If the facility is running perfectly and there is no plutonium leaking, than, yeah, it's safe," Fry said. "But the Department of Energy has never built a facility that hasn't leaked plutonium.
"Anytime you're dealing with any radioactive material, you have to deal with all of the risk scenarios."
The EPA regulates all DOE projects, including those at the INL. Poeton said the relationship has always been smooth.
"What (the INL does) is much lower than what they're allowed to do," he said. "They've done a good job in the past of managing their air emissions and complying with the details of the regulations."
The final EIS should be released by the end of the year, at which time the secretary of energy will make a decision on the project.