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Forever contamination

A submitted reading, from Tami Thatcher, about Earth Day and cleanup at the Idaho National Laboratory.

On Earth Day, it is fitting to understand the “forever” contamination sites the Idaho National Laboratory’s cleanup is leaving behind. Ignoring the spent nuclear fuel and calcine that will supposedly be shipped out of state some day, there are roughly 55 “forever” radioactively contaminated sites of various sizes, and about 30 “forever” asbestos, mercury or military ordnance sites.

The areas contaminated with long-lived radioisotopes that are not being cleaned up will require institutional controls in order to claim that the “remediation” is protective of human health. People must be prevented from coming into contact with subsurface soil or drinking water near some of these sites — forever.

The Department of Energy downplays the mess and usually doesn’t specify how long the controls are required when the time frame is over thousands of years: they just say “indefinite.”

A summary of the INL “forever” sites here.

Institutional control of “forever” contamination means they put up a sign, maybe a fence or a soil cap — and assume it will be maintained for millennia. “Don’t worry about the cost. And besides,” they always add, “you and I won’t be here.”

Frequently cited stringent EPA standards such as 4 mrem/yr in drinking water are emphasized. But cleanup efforts often won’t come close to achieving the advertised standards.

DOE argued against digging up meaningful amounts of transuranic and other long-lived radioactive waste at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. Only the most egregious chemically-laden buried waste is being removed. Denying that exorbitant cost to dig up waste and lack of another place to put it may have played a role, DOE argued that the incremental risk to a worker was too high given the small incremental benefit to a member of the public.

The analysis of the “worker” didn’t come down to concern over radiation workers monitored under DOE programs — which they argued were by definition protective. They argued that a state worker inspecting radioactive shipments would get an excessive radiation dose if working 30 years at the job, unmonitored for radiation. Then the benefit to the public was minimized by ignoring post-10,000 year contamination. Despite “remediation” radionuclides trickle into the aquifer at RWMC over the next millennia creating 30 to 100 mrem/yr doses, depending on the soil cap.

Cleanup decisions need to protect workers and the public. But studies continue to find that US radiation protection standards aren’t protective for either. A study of a large population of radiation workers getting an average 200 mrem/yr found elevated cancer risk. Find that study here. A prominent National Academy of Sciences study called the BEIR-VII report found radiation health risk for women double that of men, and female infants seven times more vulnerable than adult men.

Past and current decisions are based on ignoring the health risk to the most vulnerable. Current industry pressure is on loosening radiation standards to allow more emissions and to make waste burial easier.

Technical estimates of the rate of radionuclide migration to Idaho’s Snake River Plain Aquifer from the Idaho National Laboratory are biased to minimize the migration in the short term, avoid discussing the migration of contaminants in the long term and to ignore the spikes of contaminant migration during times of higher water infiltration. Experts have not been right very often about predicting contamination migration over the last several decades, they continue to be surprised by contamination migration now and in no way are their estimates of future contamination reliable or conservative. Naturally, the INL is planning to dump more radioactive waste over the aquifer.

What folks downstream of the INL from Rupert to Hagerman don’t understand about the aquifer — is a lot. And if they continue to rely on the nuclear boosters for information they will continue to be misinformed.

If the Department of Energy has its way, maybe all we will need is big sign placed on planet Earth, readable to potential visitors orbiting in space: “High radiation, don’t linger here and don’t drink the water.”

Thatcher is a former nuclear safety analyst at the Idaho National Laboratory and is now a nuclear safety consultant. Find out more at

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