Buried Nuclear Waste is Bad for Idaho

The buried waste exhumation of “targeted” waste at Idaho National Laboratory’s Radioactive Waste Management Complex has ceased. Recently celebrations were held, and Gov. Brad Little was quoted as saying, “We got it done.”

Gov. Little should have been asking why most, nearly all, of the buried waste is remaining buried, as more radioactive waste continues to be buried at INL.

Records of the buried waste are unreliable, but something like 10,300 cubic meters of targeted waste has been exhumed of the over 125,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste buried. None of the non-transuranic waste was exhumed, and as targeted waste was being exhumed, more radioactive waste was being buried. Targeted waste was limited to a portion of the waste in 5.69 acres of the 35 acres in which waste was buried.

Maybe Gov. Little just doesn’t know that over 90 percent of the americium-241, the radionuclide deemed the highest risk to the aquifer will remain buried at RWMC. After all, the Department of Energy has kept very mum about the vast amounts of long-lived radionuclides that will remain buried at the RWMC over the Snake River Plain aquifer.

Since 1952, radioactive waste from INL operations and from around the country has been shallowly buried over the Snake River Plain aquifer at the RWMC. Remaining buried over the aquifer are decades of Cold War weapons waste, naval facilities waste and other radioactive waste.

Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus was told repeatedly by the Department of Energy that the Rocky Flats waste being buried there was simply being temporarily “stored.”

By the early 1970s, the state of Idaho’s concern over the aquifer led to the Department of Energy to dangerously stack barrels of radioactive waste above ground rather than bury them. Those above-ground barrels of radioactive waste posed many risks to Idaho. And the barrels of uranium and nitrate-laden waste stacked above ground are simply staying put.

Chemicals from Rocky Flats waste were detected in the aquifer above drinking water standards which made it an Environmental Protection Agency Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act problem, not just a 1995 Idaho Settlement Agreement issue. Unfortunately, while Idaho won the “all means all” court case when DOE refused to exhume any waste, in 2008 Idaho shortsightedly signed on to allow DOE to remove only a fraction of the buried waste, agreeing that only the targeted waste would be exhumed at RWMC.

No matter the longevity of the radioactive waste, for a landfill such as the RWMC, the EPA limits its concern to 10,000 years. Modeling assumptions were chosen so that the leaching of radioactive waste into the aquifer was assumed to largely be delayed beyond 10,000 years. In CERCLA cleanup meetings, the public was not told of the increases of radionuclides in the aquifer from RWMC after 10,000 years for this toxic waste that spans millennia.

Gov. Little should be asking why radioactive waste has continued to be shallowly buried over the aquifer at INL. And he should be asking why airborne radioactive emissions have increased far above the levels of the 1990s and are slated to continue increasing.

Gov. Little also should be asking how spent nuclear fuel at INL will be road-ready to leave the state in compliance with the Idaho Settlement Agreement, when there is no spent fuel repackaging facility. Gov. Little should be asking what will happen to the spent nuclear fuel at INL when the DOE does not even have a program for obtaining a disposal facility.

Instead, Gov. Little sees cleanup of a tiny fraction of the buried waste along with the continued burial of long-lived radioactive waste over the aquifer at INL as reason to celebrate and to have “confidence in what takes place out here at the lab.”

Omissions are typical of the DOE when it comes to discussing radioactive waste, with its increasing airborne emissions. For many years, the rates of thyroid cancer incidence have been roughly double that of every county surrounding INL compared to the rest of the state and the country. And it should come as no surprise that Idaho rates a grade “F” for tracking and prevention of birth defects that may be found elevated due to increasing environmental radiological contamination.

I grieve for the citizens of Idaho and what is to come from the reality of the growing radioactive waste problems in our state.