Opponents of a proposed nuclear waste incinerator in central Idaho have broadened their campaign, this time targeting a high-level radioactive waste treatment facility at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) that’s been operating on an interim permit since 1982.
Members of the Jackson Hole-based Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free (KYNF) and Idaho’s Environmental Defense Institute, two of the groups which won a settlement agreement from the Department of Energy (DOE) earlier this spring to re-examine the incinerator decision, recently notified the DOE that they intended to sue over the agency’s operation of a calciner, which has treated 8 million gallons of liquid toxic waste in 18 years. The DOE responded by putting the calciner on “standby” status, shutting it down for the rest of the year.
The calciner is a bed heated to 500 degrees Celsius, over which waste including spent nuclear fuel is poured. “In theory, only water vaporizes off, so they get rid of the water and are left with just this dry material,” says Erik Ringelberg, director of KYNF. But as INEEL officials admit, things haven’t actually worked out that way.
“One of the problems,” says INEEL spokesperson Brad Bugger, “has been that the emissions are very acidic. So when we heat it up in the calciner, it goes up the stack and… it basically destroyed the equipment.”
While no one knows exactly what’s gone up the calciner smokestacks over the past 18 years, Bugger says engineers are able to make an educated guess. “We know what goes in, for instance, so we have a good idea of what goes out,” he says.
By official calculations, the calciner released small amounts of radioactive material in 1998. The following year, 12 tons of volatile organic compounds, 170 tons of carbon monoxide, 340 tons of nitrogen oxide, and 46 pounds of mercury compounds went out the smoke stacks.
Ringelberg says these figures are not benign, nor do they show the whole picture. “Nitrogen oxide is one of the classic Clean Air Act pollutants that they’ve been trying to get a handle on since the ’70s,” Ringelberg says. The yellowish-brown gas has been linked to birth defects, and causes acid rain and ozone depletion.
To continue to operate the calciner after 2002, INEEL will have to meet Clean Air Act requirements. To do that, INEEL has to monitor its emissions. While the DOE took a step in that direction this spring, during a test run in which the monitoring equipment survived, emissions data won’t be available until later this summer, Bugger says. The DOE will use that information to decide whether to upgrade the facility to meet federal standards, or to shut it down altogether.