Tuesday, March 07, 2000

Environmental group speaks out against planned waste calciner

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. (AP) - Western Wyoming activists are demanding that the federal government drop plans to restart a facility that processes liquid radioactive waste into more stable granules at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Officials of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free claim there have been numerous instances in atmospheric releases and other problems in recent years at the New Waste Calcine Facility.

But Energy Department spokesman Brad Bugger maintained that the facility has worked successfully and will be restarted this week with tests run through June.

"We feel like it would be better to have more data," Bugger said. "There's a lot of skepticism about whether we can effectively calcine this material."

Energy Department officials have had trouble getting conditions right to process liquid wastes still stored in tanks above the Snake River aquifer. The new tests will focus on increasing temperatures to treat the sodium-bearing waste and assess the feasibility of upgrading the calciner to meet new, tougher federal emissions laws.

Under the state's 1995 court-enforced nuclear waste cleanup agreement with the federal government, the government must begin processing an estimated 1.5 million gallons of sodium-bearing liquid waste by June 2001 and complete the work before 2013.

But in a letter to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free members charged that:

- There were at least 18 incidents where equipment, filter failures, power outages and poor operations have resulted in excessive atmospheric releases of radioactive materials, in some cases causing widespread, severe contamination.

- In April 1992, employees were forced to remain indoors after an accidental release from the main stack went beyond the plant boundary, resulting in up to six acres of land being decontaminated.

- In 1999, an explosion at the calciner caused worker overexposures, and significant damage to it.

- There were at least six fires at the calciner, and inspectors found several instances where fire and radiation alarms were shut off.

"The lax regulation and troubling operational record of the calciner at INEEL does not bode well for the proposed plutonium incinerator to be operated by British Nuclear Fuels Limited," said Berte Hirschfield, president of the anti-nuclear group that also is fighting a $1.2 billion incinerator to process plutonium-contaminated waste.