The Idaho National Laboratory reported Thursday that a fire that has consumed some 170 square miles of brush land on and off the eastern Idaho nuclear site has not burned over any areas contaminated by radioactive materials.
The Snake River Alliance, a southern Idaho nuclear watchdog organization, is skeptical of that statement, as is the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
"I guess I can't image DOE saying that," said Susan Burke, INL coordinator for DEQ. Burke was referring to the U.S. Department of Energy, the agency that operates the INL.
"It looks like the fire has gone over a few older Superfund sites," Burke said, adding that the sites have been assessed and remediated, which in some instances involved placing clean soil over contamination in the ground.
She said past fires in the same general area of the INL have not resulted in radiological releases into the atmosphere.
Whether this week's fire stirred up any radioactive materials is not yet known and is pending results from air and smoke sampling conducted by both the INL and DEQ.
"We're not expecting there to be any radioactive contamination from the smoke, but we won't know until we have the results," Burke said.
The fire started Tuesday afternoon near the Critical Infrastructure Test Range Complex, a training facility a few miles north of the intersection of U.S. Highways 20 and 26. High winds, with gusts up to 55 miles per hour, rapidly spread the blaze in a northeastern direction. Some 15 miles to the east, the fire skirted the INL Materials and Fuels Complex facility, where nuclear reactor fuel research is conducted. The INL reported that the fire downed power lines to both facilities but did not burn the buildings.
The fire continued to spread northeasterly, jumped the INL boundary and by Wednesday burned some 30 miles to the east to Interstate 15 north of Idaho Falls.
The INL reported Thursday that favorable weather conditions had slowed the blaze and that the fire was 60 percent contained.
The Idaho Mountain Express posed the question about the fire burning over contaminated areas to the INL Thursday morning. A prepared statement was issued to the Express a few hours later by INL spokesman John Epperson.
"We have no reason to believe that there was any radiological release," Epperson said. "Air samples were collected by INL and the State of Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and are being analyzed for any indication of radioactive release. Both entities are checking its samples for any indication of radioactivity. When we have those results we will report them."
On further questioning, Epperson said: "It did not burn any contaminated areas. We're not expecting to find anything—this is precautionary and standard operating procedure."
Andrea Shipley, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, expressed concern as to whether the fire burned over contaminated areas.
"Without a full report on everything, it's hard to make a comment on that now," Shipley said. "It will get very clear, once we get the air quality results, what if any contamination occurred.
"The fire is a major concern to the Snake River Alliance. I think it calls into notice that natural disasters can have consequences. Thus far, we don't know what the consequences of this fire will be."
Editor's note: Just as this story was being sent to press, INL spokesman Epperson issued a follow-up statement confirming that the fire did burn over three sites once identified as contaminated. He said INL still believes no contamination was released by the fire.
Terry Smith: email@example.com