Burning Questions 

Critics fume over the feds’ plan to burn nuclear waste 250 miles south of Missoula

The north-south highway that links Montana and Idaho is a road less traveled. Connecting small towns like Dillon and Monida with the cities of Blackfoot and Pocatello, Interstate 15 is an isolated route. A driver could be forgiven for thinking he’d been transported to the moon.

Near Idaho Falls, about an hour south of the border, the landscape supports this illusion. Old lava flows have left the scenery basaltic and alien. It seems fitting in a weird way, that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) chose such a spot to burn nuclear waste.

In fact, there may be no perfect place on earth to put a nuclear waste incinerator, but the DOE decision last spring sparked off a high-profile controversy. The problem? The so-called “Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project” is located 90 miles upwind of Yellowstone National Park. While the government claims that radioactive emissions will be miniscule, and the National Park Service has been strangely quiet on the issue, residents from nearby Jackson Hole are up in arms. Led by flamboyant trial lawyer Gerry Spence, members of the tony resort community are suing the government, claiming that the DOE gave short shrift to public participation, and is needlessly endangering a national treasure.

For five decades, the government has generated and stored radioactive waste at a facility near Idaho Falls now called the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). Originally built to test different types of nuclear reactors—sometimes intentionally pushing them to the point of meltdown—INEEL was declared a Superfund site in 1989 for waste generated by activities that included extracting reusable radioactive material from used weapons parts and processing spent nuclear fuel. Added to that is radioactive waste shipped from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver, for a total of 65,000 cubic meters of both high and low-level radioactive and hazardous material stored at the site, including plutonium and chemicals known as PCBs.

When the waste containers began reaching the end of their life expectancies in the early 1980s, the feds had to search for new storage options. They settled on an incinerator which will reduce the volume and render the organic compounds safer for burial—probably at a site in Carlsbad, N.M. The planned incinerator will take another 120,000 cubic meters of mixed radioactive and hazardous waste from other DOE sites in the U.S. In all, 185,000 cubic meters of waste will keep the fires burning for about 30 years.

But critics say the plan combines an antiquated technique—incineration—with unproven filtering technology. They point out that no one has ever burned plutonium and PCBs (which turn to dioxins when incinerated) in the same mix. They cite INEEL’s safety record—which adds up to 49 accidents from January 1998 through September 1999, including five at the low-level waste incinerator facilities currently in use—as support for their misgivings. Similar incinerator proposals have been defeated at plants in Denver, New Mexico and California, and opponents frequently quote scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who issued a report stating, “We view incineration as a violation of the cardinal principle of radioactive waste treatment; namely, containing radioactivity rather than spreading it around.”

In order to halt the project, a handful of groups are suing. Led by Jackson’s Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free and the Idaho-based Environmental Defense Institute, critics charge that the government bypassed public notice and meeting requirements, and adopted a flawed plan which failed to consider less harmful means of treating the waste.

Spence is incensed over the matter. “It’s a miserable son of a bitch,” he says. “There are three major parks downwind of this monstrosity. They haven’t looked at the effects of exposure to Yellowstone, to the Tetons, to Craters of the Moon. They haven’t done a thing about telling any of us about it.”

ALARA and Alarm

The current situation was born of politics and court battles. In the early 1990s, the state of Idaho sued the DOE, pushing the feds to make some sort of decision about how to deal with the radioactive waste sitting around the INEEL site. The DOE had completed a nationwide Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for nuclear waste disposal, a monstrous document that devoted a few hundred pages to INEEL. Among other things, the state alleged that this EIS was insufficient, that the federal government should do a site-specific study for Idaho’s facility. But in 1995, under a new governor, the lawsuit was settled. The DOE agreed to dispose of INEEL’s waste by some unspecified method, and signed onto a time table for doing so. Under the settlement, the new EIS was to be approved by 1998, the facility was to be built by the end of 2002, and March 31, 2003 was set as the deadline to begin operations. DOE officials were working under the gun.

In 1996, the agency signed a $1.2 billion contract with a company called British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) to treat the waste. The company, which will build, own and operate the incinerator, began applying for permits in 1997 from the EPA and the state. All this took place well before the site-specific EIS was written and presented to the public for review in 1998. Thus Spence’s lawsuit concludes that the public part of the process was a sham, a series of violations against the National Environmental Policy Act. “It’s the expeditious thing,” he says. “They know how to burn stuff, they haven’t taken the time to develop anything else.”

BNFL, incidentally, is not popular in environmentalist circles, where activists claim that the company’s record in Europe is dismal. Greenpeace, one of the company’s loudest critics, charged in December that BNFL had falsified data regarding plutonium fuel it shipped to Japan earlier in 1999. BNFL denies the allegations and staunchly defends its record. But even if BNFL is a model corporate citizen, critics of the incinerator say there’s still plenty to worry about.

“The air permit, the EIS, it’s all based on a best case scenario,” says Mary Mitchell of the Jackson group. “Incinerators everywhere have all kinds of leaks. They’ve never tested an incinerator like this one before. I find that pretty scary.”

Defense spokesperson Brad Bugger says Mitchell’s fears are overblown. He points out that the amount of plutonium that will be released from the incinerator’s smokestack under normal operations is minute: 0.001 curies of the most dangerous kind—plutonium 238—to the atmosphere each year, in addition to trace amounts of other kinds of plutonium and radioactive material. He says the incinerator has an 11-point safety system to shut the plant down if something goes wrong.

“Incineration can and will be done safely within all the permit requirements and laws regarding emissions,” he says. “We call our goal for release of radioactive material ALARA—as low as reasonably achievable… [T]he quantity [of plutonium] we’ll be putting out is absolutely miniscule. It’s so small it can’t be measured, it has to be calculated.”

The DOE maintains that the amount of radiation the incinerator will release is comparable to the level of radiation any person gets just from living in the modern world. “To put the offsite doses from INEEL into perspective, it is useful to compare them to the natural background radiation levels in the vicinity of INEEL,” reads the EIS. “The potential radiological dose from routine airborne releases at INEEL are incremental to the dose from natural background radiation.”

But Mitchell says such a comparison is meaningless, at least for health purposes. “There’s a distinction between man-made radioactive material and natural radiation. It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” she says. “Things created in the fission process, like plutonium and strontium 90, and put out in the air, these are not natural occurrences. What they can do to the human body is different than natural radiation.”

Adding insult to the potential for injury, the DOE did not consider possible effects from the incinerator outside a 50-mile radius, and—aside from a brief mention in the Federal Register—did not alert the public or hold any meetings outside southern Idaho. But, Bugger says, because the agency concluded that no one within 50 miles will be harmed by the release of plutonium and dioxins to the air, the agency was not required by law to look any further.

Bugger’s statements do not reassure incinerator opponents. They point to a similar incinerator in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where an emergency vent popped open four times in three months in 1996, releasing unfiltered smoke from low-level radioactive waste, heavy metals and PCBs into the air. Since 1997, two reporters for the daily Tennessean interviewed nearly 200 people who believed the incinerator was making them ill. “They all had health problems their doctors could not explain,” says journalist Laura Frank.

The INEEL incinerator will not have an emergency vent, so a Tennessee-style disaster is unlikely. “Incineration can and will be done safely within all the permit requirements and laws regarding emissions,” Bugger says confidently. “There is no worst-case scenario.”

While the ground underneath INEEL, the Snake River Plain, is fairly stable, the subterranean hot spot which feeds Yellowstone’s geyser basins has given birth to the most explosive volcanic eruptions in the continent’s history. The volcanic rock lining the road for miles down Interstate 15 attests to the region’s violent potential. Mammoth Hot Springs, Mud Volcanoes, Norris Geyser Basin—all sustained by active thermal activity. And that, says one official, is the real danger.

“It’s what we call a ‘design-based seismic event,’ an earthquake in which the entire facility would be destroyed,” explains John Medema, the EIS document manager.

The EIS discusses the likelihood of various accidents in terms of equations. The possibility of fires, explosions, spills are all boiled down to decimal points, with potential fatalities calculated similarly. While an earthquake or lava flow has been deemed “unlikely” and “extremely unlikely” respectively, Medema says the agency has tried to prepare for those contingencies just in case. “We’ll try to earthquake-proof the structure as best we can,” he says.

Given the possibility of accidents over the next three decades, opponents of the incinerator say the government ought to explore other means of disposal. They point to 10 alternatives listed in the EIS which the government declined to analyze, including two that were deemed “available” and even “proven technologies.” The problem, the DOE concludes, is that these raise “a number of cross-cutting technical issues that represent some risk for commercial application…”

Spence sees it differently. “The problem is the DOE has just had its tail twisted—it’s got a contract to get rid of this stuff and $1.2 billion to build an incinerator. What they want is a safe way, easy way out,” he says. “They negotiated this behind-the-doors deal with BNFL, with whom they’ve contracted across the land, and now they do an EIS to check out the environmental impacts.

“But with respect to the idea that there are no other alternatives, there are other alternatives; they’ve just not taken the time to check them out and develop them. They’re saying time is more important than health. It’s a matter of expediency.”

Despite Bugger’s allegiance to the proposition of ALARA, officials rejected a safer “non-thermal” proposal, which they say “would have the least impact… in air quality, water and energy use, worker and public health, and industry safety…” It’s the presence of PCBs, Bugger says, that practically forces the agency to incinerate the waste. “The EPA mandates incineration or disposal at licensed chemical landfill,” Bugger says. “And there is no licensed chemical landfill that also accepts radioactive material.” Under the non-thermal alternative, PCBs would have to be separated out and stored indefinitely.

Trouble Downwind

At first glance at a map, INEEL seems a pretty ideal place for an incinerator. Only 120,000 people live within that 50-mile radius, many of those centered in Idaho Falls and Pocatello. Even doubling the area to 100 miles, you get more national forests and wilderness areas than towns of appreciable size. But in doing so, the southwestern corner of Yellowstone gets added to the picture, including the corridor along the Firehole River and the park’s most famous feature, Old Faithful. So it seems odd that even as the Jackson crew holds up the specter of contamination in Yellowstone to publicize their cause, the park service itself has been strangely quiet. Park spokesperson Marsha Karle says the agency is content to keep an eye in the situation for now. “We’re not experts on nuclear waste,” she says. “But because it’s a continuing concern, we will continue to look into the situation. We’re not going to let something happen to harm the park, the park’s visitors or the park’s employees.”

While Yellowstone is a convenient PR tool for those fighting the incinerator, having glitzy Jackson residents on their side—people like Spence, actor Harrison Ford and musician Tom Rush—doesn’t hurt either. Ford and his wife donated $50,000 of the $435,000 raised to fund the lawsuit, and Spence’s celebrity has helped garner attention in the national media. Mitchell, however, refuses to succumb to criticism that theirs is a “not in my backyard” campaign.

“They tend to place these facilities in economically depressed areas, where there is not a high level of education. We have a voice over here—we’re lucky to have economically advantaged people to help us fight this,” she says. “What we’re saying is incineration is antiquated and there are better ways to do it.

“It’s not about running the incinerator out of Idaho. We’d like to have the larger impact of helping to do away with incineration all together. We’d like to see someone else not have to waste their time and energy.”

The public comment period on the incinerator’s final permit from the state ended in early February, but opponents have asked for an injunction pending the outcome of the lawsuit. Two other groups, the Sierra Club and the Snake River Alliance, joined the cause late last year. A hearing on discovery issues has been scheduled for March 10, though lawyers say this may be postponed.

For his part, Spence is appalled the DOE is looking to burn nuclear waste in his back yard. But as the attorney who won a 1979 civil suit for the family of Karen Silkwood, a young woman who died under dubious circumstances while preparing to blow the whistle on her employer, government nuclear contractor Kerr-McGee, Spence is no stranger to the nuclear industry and asserts that the risk to Yellowstone is real, not symbolic.

“To put Yellowstone Park under the incinerator for 35 years and insist that it’s not going to harm anything is ridiculous,” he says. “People won’t have to go to the park in the daytime to see the animals, they can go at night because the animals will glow.”

Spence’s grim humor aside, a leading nuclear scientist says the animals will be at risk. “All life forms are subject to injury from radiation. It depends on how much gets in the park,” says John Gofman, Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley. “In the case of animals, they eat contaminated vegetation, they eat each other.” The primary danger is the same as that to humans—both residents and the approximately 3 million who visit the park each year: cancer.

According to a 1990 Public Health Statement issued by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, plutonium is most likely to be inhaled, though it can be eaten and it can enter the body through open wounds. “Plutonium may remain in the lungs or move to the bones, liver or other body organs,” the agency reports. “It generally stays in the body for decades and continues to expose the surrounding tissues to radiation.”

Compounding the danger, Gofman says, is the question of what will happen when INEEL burns the unique combination of substances stored at the site. PCBs turn to dioxins when burned, and dioxins cause cancer. “If you have certain kinds of carcinogens, there’s good evidence that sometimes you’ll get an interactive effect, that one compound modulates the toxicity of the other,” he says. “So then enters the possibility that when you combine plutonium or other radionuclides with PCBs the total effect will be worse than the sum of the two. It’s called a synergistic effect, and we have far from enough information.”

Gofman, who has worked on the nation’s top nuclear projects since signing on with the Manhattan Project in 1941, says there is no agreement about a safe level of plutonium.

“I wouldn’t lower myself to talk about safe, allowable doses. If you say to people this is the allowable dose, they think allowable means safe. It’s a fraud upon the public and I’m shocked it’s still going on this late in the game,” he says. “I have no faith whatsoever in any government amount of radiation given to the people as safe. Any deviation from zero simply is murderous—it’s a question of how many people you will kill.”

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