Poisonous Snake?

Traces of plutonium in the Snake River raise questions about the Northwest’s nuclear legacy


So far as deadly substances go, plutonium ranks pretty high. Inhale or ingest the tiniest particle and, many scientists believe, you’ve made your pact with death. There is more than one ton of plutonium stored on top of the lava beds of central Idaho, the by-products of the Cold War weapons race. And now, say government officials, plutonium appears to be floating in the Snake River aquifer, the source from which one out of every six people in Idaho draws water.

“It is a sole source aquifer for 200,000 people,” says Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance. “A quarter of the U.S. potato crop is grown with aquifer water. A quarter of the beer brewed in America is brewed with Idaho barley. Seventy-five percent of the commercial trout in the country is raised right where the aquifer exits and falls into the river at an area called Thousand Springs. It contains about as much water as Lake Erie. If it were above ground, it would cover the state of Idaho to a depth of four feet. It’s a very important water source.”

No one—not Brailsford, not the scientists at any of the various federal agencies monitoring the situation—knows for sure where the plutonium is coming from. What they do know is this: Last October, four wells ranging between 550 and 600 feet deep on the site of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) yielded samples that tested positive for minute quantities of plutonium.

At this point, no one should panic about their drinking water, according to Brailsford and the government scientists. The amount of plutonium detected is so small, it’s just at the threshold of the agencies’ abilities to find it. And, point out DOE officials, at .08 picocuries per liter (a complicated measurement based on the particle’s rate of decay), the plutonium is well below federal safety standards. Lastly, the plutonium could have come from any number of sources, including plain old laboratory error.

“The implications are that first, we know that there is plutonium in the environment from several sources—weapons testing, of course. There’s also plutonium in the environment due to nuclear fuel reprocessing that was done at [INEEL],” says Flint Hall, a hydrogeologist for the state of Idaho’s oversight program. “There’s also plutonium in the environment because wastes from Colorado were shipped up to this Radioactive Waste Management Complex for disposal.”

The key to solving the puzzle, Hall says, will be to take “fingerprints” of the specific isotopes from each of these sources and compare them to what has been found in the groundwater. It’s possible the samples were contaminated by radioactive dust in the air, Hall says, and laboratory error is not out of the question—control samples have tested positive for plutonium in the past. Furthermore, between 1953 and 1986, the government pumped an annual average of 360 million gallons of contaminated waste—including plutonium—directly into the groundwater. If these so-called “injection wells” are the source of the plutonium, Hall says, “then that issue is taken care of because it’s not being done any more.” But if the Radioactive Waste Management Complex is implicated, the government has a tremendous clean-up job on its hands.

Between 1954 and 1970, approximately 2.7 million cubic feet of highly-concentrated nuclear waste and organic chemicals from Colorado’s Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant were shipped to Idaho and buried up to 40 feet deep in a natural basin above the aquifer. “It was a landfill, and it was intended to be the final disposal site for [the waste], so they just dug pits and trenches and backed the trucks up,” says INEEL spokesperson Brad Bugger. “They dropped the barrels and boxes into the pits and trenches, covered it up with soil, and in many cases backed the trucks over the boxes and barrels to pack them in, which sort of guaranteed that there was not much integrity left in the barrels and boxes.”

The DOE has been working on a plan to deal with the waste; the options range from capping the 168-acre area and leaving it alone, to zapping the soil with electricity in a process called in situ vitrification, turning it to glass. The agency had requested an 88-month extension on the deadline for retrieving the waste, but was turned down by the state of Idaho, and now plans to have a plan to put into action by this time next year.

While a year may sound like a long time to a lay person, particularly when water flows through the aquifer at an average rate of 10 feet a day, Hall says the static nature of plutonium in water means there is no reason to panic. “There are some contaminants that do travel well with water,” he says. “Tritium is one, because it’s actually an isotope that’s a form of hydrogen, so tritium is a part of the water.” But plutonium is a metal that carries a charge, and so is more likely to stick to the aquifer’s basaltic layers than it is to go with the flow.

Brailsford agrees that the government agencies have time, at this point, to make a reasoned decision as to the fate of the complex, even if it is leaking plutonium into her drinking water. “It takes about 100 years for water to move from the site down to Thousand Springs,” she says. “So we’re not saying plutonium is going to get on somebody’s toothbrush tomorrow morning.” The problem, she continues, is that by the time plutonium is running out of someone’s faucet, it will be too late to do anything.

Complicating matters, however, is the new Bush administration budget, which has attracted opposition from members of the president’s own party. Bush’s budget would slash the nation’s nuclear cleanup funds by 18 percent—a drop of $354 million nationally, adding up to a loss of $122 million for INEEL. Lindsay Nothern, a spokesperson for Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, says his boss is trying not only to restore that money, but also to increase it. “We’ve got to clean up this site,” Nothern says. “It’s unacceptable to the people who live here, it’s unacceptable to the environment and to taxpayers.”

Along with Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, Crapo has formed the Nuclear Waste Cleanup Caucus to push for an increase of $1 billion for cleanup efforts. According to Nothern, the increase just makes sense. “We’ve got a court-supported agreement under the former governor to move this stuff off the premises,” he says. “We’re going to get to the point where the federal government will have to pay the state, and the military won’t be able to bring its spent fuel to Idaho.” Crapo’s amendment has been included in the Senate’s budget “blueprint,” Nothern says, which gives it a good chance of being included in the end.

Meanwhile, the state and federal agencies plan to continue monitoring the wells at INEEL, and have shipped water samples to a laboratory in New Mexico for what they hope will be more accurate testing. So far as the complex is concerned, it’s still a matter for study. “Everybody’s got theories about whether this stuff will move or won’t move,” Bugger says. “But we’re trying to apply science to that.”


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