For the week of August 26 thru September 1, 1998  

Opponents slam nuclear waste plant

Express Staff Writer

Nuclear activists last week delivered a scathing attack on a proposed waste treatment plant at the National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Arco.

The U.S. Department of Energy proposes to build the plant as a means of putting nuclear and chemically contaminated waste into a form suitable for shipping to and permanent storage at its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, WIPP, near Carlsbad, N.M. At a cost of $876 million to build and operate for 33 years, the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project would use a combination of incineration, crushing and encapsulation in concrete.

However, during a public hearing on the project Thursday at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, 22 speakers blasted the proposal, contending that the DOE is rushing ahead without properly considering the plant’s potential health hazards or its economics. The speakers, most affiliated with the Snake River Alliance nuclear-watchdog group, particularly targeted the proposed incinerator, expressing concerns about possible airborne radiation.

"What has the government done in the past 50 years to make us believe it will build and operate this facility in a way that protects the environment and the people of this region?" asked Boise resident David Proctor. "In a word, nothing."

DOE representatives presented their case for the plant as the only effective means of dealing with 65,000 cubic meters of primarily mixed nuclear and chemical wastes stored temporarily at INEEL in barrels, which have begun to corrode and leak. All involved agree that if not checked, the leaks could result in contamination of the Snake River aquifer.

Plutonium-contaminated waste, primarily industrial equipment and protective clothing, began arriving at INEEL in 1954 from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons processing plant in Colorado. The era was the nuclear stone age, and scientists complacently assumed that they would figure out what to do with the waste later. As more waste piled up at the laboratory, and "later" never arrived, Idaho officials demanded that the DOE and the military come up with a plan to put the wastes into permanent storage. In 1995, an agreement was reached, stipulating that a treatment facility be in operation at INEEL by 2003.

But opponents of the proposed treatment plant Thursday questioned the basic assumption behind its construction--that the WIPP will soon be ready to accept the treated waste. Scheduled to open this past June, the site has been plagued with delays in obtaining the necessary permits from the state of New Mexico. Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, said the Department of Energy has admitted in a court document that the facility may not open for years.

"(The waste) will stay here for storage in Idaho," Hancock said. "The DOE in Washington knows it. When is the DOE in Idaho going to catch up?"

Hancock suggested that the DOE concentrate its efforts on putting the waste into a condition suitable for safer temporary storage at the INEEL, rather than for shipment to and storage at WIPP.

Under the DOE’s proposal, construction and operation of the INEEL treatment facility would be privatized to British Nuclear Fuels Inc. (BNFL), a company owned by the British government.

John Medema, project manager for a recently completed Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project, told those at Thursday’s meeting that BNFL’s bid of $876 million was considerably less than the estimated $1.6-billion that it would cost the DOE to build and operate the facility.

"We feel we’re giving a good deal to the taxpayer," said DOE representative Jan Chavez.

But Dr. William Weida, a Colorado College economics professor, disputed that contention. First, Weida questioned whether any savings realized by turning the project over to a private company would be worth the risk that the company may not perform as expected. Second, he argued that even if privatized, the project could be completed for less money through different means of financing that that proposed by the DOE.

A technical expert brought in by the Snake River Alliance also criticized the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Hisham Zerriffi, a scientist with the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, acknowledged that incineration may be needed to dispose of toxic PCBs that exist in a portion of the waste. However, he said, "there is no way for anyone with a technical background to look at this document and decide what waste needs to be incinerated and under what criteria. You may need a treatment facility here, but that hasn’t been shown in this EIS."

The DOE has contended that filters will block escape of any dangerous gases from the incineration, but Zerriffi pointed out that incineration is generally not a clean technology.

"If I lived in Idaho, I’d be very concerned about this facility," he said. "

The wastes scheduled to be treated at the proposed facility are stored above ground and therefore easily accessible. However, other wastes buried below ground pose a greater threat to the Snake River aquifer.

Ketchum resident Ellen Glaccum urged the DOE to deal with those wastes first.

"This whole scene is insanity," Glaccum said. "Clearly we should be concentrating on the most dangerous waste that is out there."

But Dr. John Kolts, principle scientific advisor to the DOE’s Idaho Operations Office, said in an interview that it will take some time before the buried wastes can be safely excavated.

"It’s a huge radioactive garbage dump with literally no records," Kolts said.

The DOE announced last week that it will soon be taking exploratory core samples at one of those sites, known as Pit 9. Earlier attempts to clean the site were abandoned by the contractor hired to do the job, Lockheed Martin Advanced Environmental Systems.

Project opponents also objected to the fact that it includes treating an additional 120,000 cubic meters of wastes from as-yet unknown sources. The DOE has acknowledged that part of that could come from out of the state.

"What is going to protect Idaho from becoming the Grand Central Station of nuclear waste to be incinerated?" asked Bellevue resident Debbie Schenk.

Written comments on the proposal will be accepted until Sept. 11. They can be mailed to:

John Medema, U.S. Department of Energy, Idaho Operations Office, MS 1117, 850 Energy Dr., Idaho Falls, ID 83401.

Comments can also be faxed to (208) 526-0160.

Information can be obtained by calling (800) 320-4549.


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