Retooling a nuclear testing reactor near Yellowstone National Park to extend its operating life could attract controversy, which may be why the Department of Energy (DOE) declined to announce its intention.
The 40-year-old Advanced Testing Reactor (ATR) at the Idaho National Laboratory, 30 miles west of Idaho Falls, tests nuclear materials used in Navy submarines and NASA probes, and a $200 million Life Extension Program will keep it active until 2040.
The development has inspired a wave of litigation from Jackson Hole, Wyo.-based environmental group Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free.
In 2006 the group successfully sued DOE under the Freedom of Information Act and gained access to 30,000 documents on the reactor. Within that mountain of text their lawyer, Mark Sullivan, says he found a “smoking gun.”
Minutes from a DOE Idaho Operations Office National Environmental Policy Act Planning Board meeting from December 2006 say: “Addressed problems with ATR and how to go forward. Suggestions were made to do analysis—EIS [Environmental Impact Statement]. [The Office of Nuclear Energy] does not want it due to public response.”
Without performing the analysis, DOE moved forward with its plans, and in doing so, Sullivan says, broke the law.
NEPA requires an EIS and public hearings for all “major federal actions” that may have significant impact on the environment.
“Any private business would have to perform an EIS,” says Sullivan.
A DOE “Casual Analysis Report” from December 2003 lists several problems with the ATR, mostly regarding portions of the facility vulnerable to earthquake.
A worst-case scenario, outlined by the DOE in court documents filed in Wyoming District Court, could lead to evacuation of cities within 65 miles, such as Idaho Falls and Pocatello. Weather permitting, fallout from a reactor emergency could reach both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks.
Sullivan and Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free filed suit on Jan. 22 to halt use of the ATR until an EIS is performed.
Idaho Falls DOE spokesman Brad Bugger declined to comment due to the litigation, but released a statement saying, “DOE has conducted and does conduct NEPA environmental reviews of ATR activities as and when appropriate.”