But for the efforts of 100 Idaho firefighters, Department of Energy officials might not have had to worry about pesky lawsuits and environmental reviews on a proposed nuclear waste incinerator upwind of Yellowstone National Park. Lightning sparked two fires in the southwest corner of the Idaho National Environmental and Engineering Laboratory on July 27—the third of the big Western nuclear labs to burn this year.
According to DOE spokesperson Alan Jines, the Grid 40 fires were joined soon after by the Tea Kettle fire, and together they consumed 49,000 acres of the complex before it was put out on July 29. While no buildings were destroyed, the fire burned four acres of grass inside the lab’s Test Reactor Area (TRA)—an operational nuclear reactor used for research purposes that was coincidentally in shut-down mode at the time. Jines says the fires burned over some unexploded ordnance that lay on the open ground, and a general map of the fire boundaries shows it crept close to the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC), an old chemical plant which has been designated as a series of Superfund sites. Both the TRA and INTEC areas contain high levels of radioactive material, according to a 1990 survey.
“We performed air monitoring throughout that period and did not find any indication of radioactive emissions,” Jines says. Conclusive test results are not due for another week or so, he adds.
But an activist watchdog group questions INEEL’s assurances that the blaze did no harm. “Basically, they underplay the whole issue,” says Erik Ringelberg, of the Jackson-based Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free. “I think that it is great that no buildings were lost, but my concern is the radioactive material in the plants and soil.” Ringelberg points out that INEEL did not test for things like heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which Jines readily admits would be released by a range fire. Further, Ringelberg says, the measuring stick by which the lab judges emissions is flawed.
“Their test for significant difference from background radiation is based on locations that have been impacted by radiation from both INEEL and Hanford,” he says. “This entire issue is sheer obfuscation.”
Jines counters that all range fires release metals and VOCs, and concludes that there was no purpose to monitoring for these materials. None of the ordnance exploded, and Jines says there’s no reason to get excited about the blaze.
“We have a lot of fires, usually in early August,” he says. “We know how to fight them.”