Idaho State Journal


Threat or remedy?
How will the public perceive a nuclear waste incinerator to be built at INEEL?

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series outlining the Department of Energy's mission to rid the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory of much of its toxic waste. The next installment will appear a week from today.
By Anne Minard
Journal Staff Writer
POCATELLO - Berte Hischfield sees it as a threat to human and environmental health.
Ann Riedesel believes it's a way to remedy part of the hazard.
Contractors may successfully complete a $1.2 billion waste incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory north of Pocatello - work is slated to begin as soon as permits are finished in as little as 60 days, officials say.
But public relations work will likely carry on for quite some time.
Hischfield, of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, for instance, is just one of a vocal group based in Jackson, Wyo., that opposes construction of the incinerator. They believe it poses great environmental risks even that far away.
Proponents are just as adamant that the facility, to be built for INEEL by British Nuclear Fuels Ldt. Inc., represents new heights in technology and will successfully help rid the region of plutonium-contaminated wastes that have for years put the environment at risk.
A public comment period on the nuclear waste incinerator closed two weeks ago. Federal permit writers still have to respond to that input, revise permits, if necessary, then finalize the documents.
Riedesel, BNFL business communications specialist, says construction was slated to begin in March, but will start as soon as the permit is issued. Completion of the project is expected in 2003.
The facility is designed to incinerate waste shipped to INEEL when Rocky Flats, a Colorado Department of Energy site making plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, shut down. Boxes and barrels currently stored at INEEL hold plutonium-contaminated workmens' clothing, gloves, and industrial cleanup sludge from the closure of that site.
Some January public meetings about the construction permit got heated, especially in Jackson, where about 800 people showed up for the event. And it was the group from Jackson that published full-page advertisements in local papers urging area residents and farmers to help stop the project.
Opponents express several concerns about the project; proponents are ready to reply:
n The waste to be incinerated is now stored above ground in buildings at the INEEL, but waste delivered years ago to the site is buried underground. Some environmental groups, like the Idaho-based Snake River Conservation Alliance, believe cleanup funds are being misallocated and should be spent first on the more dangerous, below-ground waste.
Riedesel says those fears are unfounded. Projects to treat both the buried waste and the above-ground waste are fully funded, she says.
"It's not like one is getting shortchanged for the other."
n Jackson-area residents are afraid that particulate emissions from the incinerator will be blown toward the Jackson area. They've also warned southeast Idaho potato growers that their farm ground could be contaminated.
But David Phelps, a technician at the National Weather Service, says the prevailing wind direction in southeastern Idaho is southwest - that means winds come from California, the southwest, and blow toward the northeast.
And Riedesel denies that emissions, regardless of where they are blown, are a concern.
"We are containing the activity," Riedesel says.
This incinerator will be the first to employ "extensive redundancy" meaning emissions will be routed repeatedly through filtration systems, and is designed to exceed new, tougher federal standards for emitted pollutants.
Extensive monitoring systems are planned for the facilities, and an automatic shutoff will ensure that, should emissions approach a tenth of the federally-mandated limits, materials will cease to be fed into the process while filtration will continue. The system is designed never to vent directly into the air, Riedesel says.
n Some question the reliability of contractor BNFL, Inc., based on their performance record abroad. Activists at the Jackson meeting called the company's history "heinous" and "devastating," alleging that unscrupulous business practices got the company into trouble in Japan and Switzerland, among other places.
Riedesel says the criticism stems from an incident in the United Kingdom, where three quality-control workers were caught falsifying inspection data for Mox Fuel pellets that British Nuclear Fuels Limited was producing.
The workers, Riedesel says, were copying data from previous inspections to avoid work they thought was "tedious." Those workers were fired, and the investigation is ongoing. Riedesel says the incident "concerned us a great deal," and the company is taking steps to make sure other workers don't engage in dishonest record-keeping.
Anne Minard covers the environment and INEEL for the Journal. She can be reached at 239-3168 or by e-mail at aminard@journalnet.com

     


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