Following recent completion of an environmental assessment, the U.S. Department of Energy will begin using a new site at the Idaho National Laboratory to test the effectiveness of protective devices used against explosives attacks by terrorists.
"Results from these tests will provide information to better protect people and our nation's buildings and infrastructure," said Elizabeth Sellers, manger of the DOE's Idaho Operations Office.
Tests conducted at the National Security Test Range will use only conventional, and not nuclear, explosives. DOE spokesperson Brad Bugger said the military could become a client of the test site, but no weapons testing is done at INEL.
He said tests at the new site will begin in about a month.
Bugger said the department has been conducting a limited number of similar tests at other locations at INL. However, he said, the new site's more remote location will allow the use of stronger explosives—up to 20,000 pounds, as opposed to a maximum of 500 pounds in previous tests. He said it will also permit more frequent use—three to five days per week—though most of those tests will involve very small explosions.
The tests will evaluate explosives countermeasures, including armor, security devices and barriers. They will involve rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices and car bombs.
According to the Environmental Assessment, the site will include a 900-foot-diameter mowed field, an earthen berm, a concrete test pad, a new access road, buried data acquisition cables and protected camera boxes.
In response to a draft EA in January, the Snake River Alliance, Idaho's nuclear watchdog group, contended that the test explosions could cause "catastrophic damage to both the environment and people living nearby."
"This is exactly the wrong kind of activity for a nuclear site," the group's executive director, Jeremy Maxand, stated.
INL's other facilities are devoted to research on nuclear power and waste management.
The EA states that the new site was chosen to be remote enough to avoid damaging those facilities. It is located 7 miles north of the INL's Materials and Fuels Complex, formerly the site of Argonne-West. The INL covers 890 square miles (569,135 acres) in the Arco Desert, midway between Arco and Idaho Falls, with its headquarters in Idaho Falls.
Released on April 12, the EA found that use of the site would have no significant impact on the environment. It states that one criterion of site selection was to minimize impacts on wildlife habitat.
Bugger said the tests will generally not be open to viewing by the public.
"We'd have to look at that on a case-by-case basis," he said. "But someone would have to give us a very good reason."