Jackson activists fight INEEL calciner

Monday, April 17, 2000

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - The group Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free has resumed its battle against the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, this time focusing on an existing radioactive waste treatment facility.

The group plans to ride the momentum of its victory in stopping a planned nuclear waste incinerator at INEEL to show that a calciner at the site has resulted in a trail of illnesses downwind, vice president Mary Mitchell said.

"The calciner is the thing we need to be very worried about," she said. "It is extremely worrisome to me that we have a level of sickness and different types of illnesses here that are above the norm."

Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free and the Environmental Defense Fund are collecting data on health problems around the nearly Rhode Island-sized INEEL west of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Environmental Defense Fund activists are meanwhile writing a notice of violations they plan to present to the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear research at INEEL.

The 90-day notice could set the foundation for a lawsuit to force the agency to shut down the calciner, environmentalist Chuck Broscious said.

"We are being very thorough, very complete in this," he said.

The calciner heats high-level radioactive liquid waste and turns it into a dry powder that can be stored more safely. The calciner is one of the main sources of pollution at INEEL, he said.

"The stuff that is going into the calciner is the worst of the worst," he said. "The calciner has burned over 1.4 million gallons of high-level waste in its lifetime.

"The fact that it has been running all these years is bad enough, but what is really tragic is that for all the 18 years it should have been permitted and monitored by the state and EPA. To this day it has not been permitted."

John Walsh, Idaho spokesman for the Department of Energy, said years of monitoring have not revealed offsite contamination, and independent scientists have confirmed those findings.

The agency maintains that the calciner, built in 1962 and upgraded in 1982, does not need state or federal permits because it predates environmental regulations.

On March 25, for about 25 minutes, the calciner put out nitrogen oxides at a rate of 482 pounds per hour, compared to the 472-pound limit that would apply if the facility fell under regulations.

Walsh said officials do not know why the limit was exceeded, but the incident did not present a health risk.

"We were 10 pounds over a conservative number," he said. "The plant is now operating at 600 degrees and emissions are within the permitted levels."

The Department of Energy is accepting public comments on a plan to dispose of 1.4 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste at INEEL. One option includes upgrading the calciner in accordance with the 1995 Clean Air Act.