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Don’t Call It an Explosion: Gaseous Ignition Events with Radioactive Waste

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch | CC BY 2.0

Last month’s explosive news from the safe, reliable nuclear deterrence folks is that at least four barrels of military radioactive waste either burst or exploded somewhere inside the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), near Idaho Falls, April 11. INL officials said the “ruptured” barrels reportedly contained a sludge of fluids and solvents sent from the long-shuttered Rocky Flats plutonium weapons machining site near Denver. The officials did not describe which radioactive materials were in the sludge.

The accident was reported by ABC News, the Associated Press, the Seattle Times, the Japan Times, Industrial Equipment News, and Fox Radio among others. Laboratory spokespersons said a 55-gallon drum, or two, holding radioactive sludge “ruptured.” Energy Department (DOE) spokesperson Danielle Miller wrote April 12 that, “Later, there were indications that a third drum may have been involved.” On April 25 Erik Simpson, a spokesman for DOE contractor Fluor Idaho, told the AP that four barrels had burst. Simpson said the “ruptures” (i.e. explosions) were heard outside the building where they took place.

The DOE’s Miller called the prompt deconstruction of the rad waste barrel(s) an “exothermal event” — a pseudonym for “bomb” that means “a chemical reaction accompanied by a burst of heat.” The phrase harks back to the officially described “gaseous ignition event” involving hydrogen gas in a loaded high-level rad waste cask at Wisconsin’s Point Beach reactor site in May 1996. The cask contained 14 tons of highly radioactive used reactor fuel, and the explosion (a word avoided only by agency public relations linguistic gymnastics) blew the high-level waste cask’s 4,000-pound lid right off.

One theory about the cause of the accident is that “radioactive decay made the barrel[s] heat up and ignite particles of uranium,” the AP reported. Unfortunately for the first responders, “When the firefighters left the building emergency workers detected a small amount of radioactive material on their skin,” the AP reported April 12. The very next sentence in this story was that the DOE’s Miller said, “None of the radioactive material was detected outside of the building where the rupture occurred.” The isotopes that contaminated the firefighters somehow don’t figure in to Miller’s “outside.”

Because of what officials said was “decades of secretive record-keeping,” lab authorities claimed not to know exactly what is in the burst barrels. Neither DOE nor INL described what got on the firefighters’ skin. INL officials do not “know the exact contents,” of the barrels, Joint Information Center spokesman Don Miley reportedly said.

Nuclear waste explosions “actually happening”

Miley told the press, “They haven’t run into anything like this actually happening” — but he has a short memory. Exploding rad waste has been around a long time.

It happened four years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2014, at the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. A barrel of military plutonium waste exploded underground, contaminating the entire facility, including the elevator and ventilator shafts, and even poisoned 22 workers internally — they inhaled the plutonium-laced dust.

More recently, on October 18, 2015, a fire and explosions spurred by rainfall hurled 11 buried barrels of radioactive chemical waste from a trench into the air and spewed debris like a geyser 60 feet high, at a “US Ecology” site near Beatty, Nevada. This shocking fire in one of 22 shallow trenches of radioactive waste couldn’t be put out with water hoses because water started it in the first place. Authorities had to close US Highway 95, cancel school, and await more explosions while they let the fire burned itself out. US Ecology had its records seized by Nevada’s Radiation Control Program, which has never disclosed what sorts of radioactive materials were burned in exploded Trench 14 — although dump site is known to hold a total of 47 lbs. of plutonium and uranium isotopes.

In September 1957 at Kyshtym in Russia, a tank holding 70 million metric tons of highly radioactive waste exploded and produced a massive plume that contaminated 250,000 people across 410 square miles. This risk always comes with high-level rad waste. It helped cancel the plan to use Yucca Mountain, Nevada for abandonment of commercial nuclear power waste, because physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory reported in 1995 that the material could erupt in a catastrophic explosion. Now, naturally, the Trump regime and his Congress want to restart that rejected plan.

After the Idaho Lab accident, the DOE’s Danielle Miller told reporters that first responders “got some radioactive contamination on their skin, but emergency workers washed it away.” And, she added, “The firefighters did not inhale any of the radioactive material.” Miller couldn’t possibly know this without extensive medical evaluation, but it could be true: if the nose and mouth weren’t attached to the skin.

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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