Original Publication Date - 01/15/2001

Blue Ribbon Panel raises questions about filters at INEEL
By N.S. Nokkentved
Times-News writer

TWIN FALLS -- The air filters that are supposed to keep radioactive particles from escaping into the air might not hold up during an accident, and a panel of scientists has recommended thorough tests.

The filters are used at INEEL facilities to trap radioactive dust particles from the various processes at the eastern Idaho nuclear research site.

After Energy Secretary Bill Richardson accepted the panel's recommendations for alternatives to incinerating radioactive waste at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory last week, Energy Department officials say they plan to look closer at the filters' effectiveness.

Longtime INEEL critic Dr. Peter Rickards, a Twin Falls podiatrist, welcomed the news.

"After 50 years of the nuclear business, it is time to come clean. This accurate type of testing has been avoided, because it probably would reveal that the DOE is emitting illegal and unhealthy amounts of plutonium into our air," Rickards said.

He has repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of those filters and has pointed to government studies that show the filters may be less effective than some officials have claimed.

Rickards cites existing studies by the Energy Department and other federal agencies that show the filters may be vulnerable to fire, to the water from sprinklers set off by fires, and the ability of plutonium to creep through multiple filters.

These problems affect all alternatives to incineration, as well as almost all nuclear plants and projects, Rickards said.

The Energy Department relies on so-called "HEPA" filters -- short for high efficiency particulate air filters -- at facilities at sites such as the INEEL.

A blue-ribbon advisory panel, assembled to evaluate alternatives to incineration of radioactive waste, also recommended thorough testing of HEPA filters.

"In particular, the panel urges rigorous evaluation of whether the reliability and efficacy of the various effluent control systems will be sufficient to protect workers, the public, and the environment," the panel said in its final report.

"We'll be taking a look at that," said Ellen Livingston, senior advisor to the secretary for environmental affairs.

The technical development program that will be undertaken will include emission control systems. Development and testing would include taking a better look at the performance of the filters under accidents.

The department already has a testing program for the HEPA filters at a federal facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Livingston said. And the department is responding to the recommendations of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board for testing HEPA filters.

A May 1999 report by the Safety Board said: "When installed fire suppression systems are activated to protect systems, structures, and components inside confinement, the moisture-laden air carried downstream to the HEPA filters can seriously degrade filter performance -- at a time when high-efficiency filter performance is crucial."

"In the even of a breakthrough of the filter during a fire, the particulate material deposited on the filters is readily lifted by buoyancy into the atmosphere, where it can be further dispersed in potentially unfavorable downwind patterns," the board wrote.

The remote location of the INEEL, however, is the last line of defense if filters fail, INEEL spokesman Brad Bugger said.

But remoteness is not always enough. In 1961, following an explosion in a small nuclear reactor, monitoring maps tracked a plume of radioactive iodine to the Magic Valley.

Times-News writer N.S. Nokkentved can be reached at 733-0931, Ext. 237, or by e-mail niels@magicvalley.com