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Carlson: A nuclear legacy

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Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Jack Byrnes, Dick Legg and Richard McKinley are names few Idahoans know—unless they happen to work at the Idaho National Laboratory located in the Arco Desert west of Idaho Falls.

On Jan. 3, 1961, these three died when the safety rod that absorbs neutrons and slows the nuclear chain reaction was removed too quickly from the reactor vessel core at SL-1, a small Army reactor approximately 50 miles west of IF. A steam explosion occurred blowing the top of the building and spreading radioactive debris into the atmosphere. They became the first humans to die in a nuclear plant accident and 51 years later are still the only Americans ever killed.

While overall the record of the nuclear industry in America, and at the site, is one of spectacular success given what engineers and operators are dealing with, whether the industry has a long-term future remains debatable. Incredible escalating costs for building new plants (ranges vary from $4000 to $9000 per kw) and waste disposal are major red flags.

In January 2011, this column raised questions about an amendment to the Idaho Settlement Agreement negotiated initially by Gov. Cecil Andrus and finalized by Gov. Phil Batt with the Navy and the Department of Energy in 1995.

At a time when Idaho is seeing the benefits of its earlier focus on removing transuranic waste from storage above the Snake Plain Aquifer, reprocessing and repackaging it for shipment to the salt caverns at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) site in New Mexico, it makes little sense to accept even a small amount of commercial spent fuel rods for research purposes at the INL site. The amended agreement signed by Gov. Butch Otter allows 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of heavy metal content in imported spent fuel rods each year for 23 years.

The overarching Idaho Settlement Agreement calls for the removal of all transuranic waste and spent fuel rods on the site by 2035. So, why fret? Well, that date is premised on Yucca Mountain, Nev., becoming the nation’s major repository by 2035. That site has been mothballed. Why run the risk of having to store researched upon rods, even a relatively small amount, approximately 10 tons, beyond 2035?

No one has provided a good answer. After additional research and candid discussions with Department of Energy spokesman, Brad Bugger, I have come around on one issue.

The Otter m.o.a. is NOT opening the floodgates to Idaho becoming the de facto repository for the nation’s considerable number of spent fuel rods. The 10 tons of spent rods that could come in are within the 55 metric ton amount negotiated by Andrus/Batt and capped.

A safeguard is Idaho can terminate the agreement at any time. Except for a de minimus amount kept for “library reference” (no more than 10 kilograms), all spent fuel has to be removed.

Most importantly, despite the Otter amendment, the site has yet to sign any contracts with any utilities to start shipping commercial spent fuel rods to Idaho.

A safety rod (NOT a spent fuel rod) is central to the story of what went wrong at SL-I that cold January night 51 years ago. The post-mortem concluded the cause was human error for clearly a critical safety rod was lifted too quickly, the on-going chain reaction accelerated and almost instantly there was an explosion.

The incident must serve as a reminder that things can and do go awry. Literally eternal vigilance over the waste generated by the industry is part of an impossible to calculate total price for Idaho hosting the largest collection of active and inactive nuclear power generation facilities in the world.

Idahoans can take comfort though from the fact that as Bugger points out, Idaho is the only state that has in place two agreements governing the handling and ultimate disposal of ALL its nuclear waste: a CERCLA (Superfund law) agreement that governs the cleanup of all the buried waste; and the Idaho Settlement Agreement that covers treatment and/or removal of stored transuranic waste and spent nuclear fuel.

So what happens to high level and low level waste, like the remnants of SL-1, which was buried in deep trenches and subsequently capped? They will remain on site and be monitored in perpetuity. Fortunately for Idaho there’s no evidence of migration of anything remotely close to minimum safe drinking water standards having migrated far let alone off site.

The $64 question is whether that continues to be the case. In the meantime, society will have to be able to provide satisfactory answers to questions of cost and waste disposal if the nuclear industry, as well as INL, is to have a future. The jury is still out.

CHRIS CARLSON is a former journalist who served as press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus. He lives at Medimont.

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