Last winter, when Jackson Hole, Wyo., residents sued the Department of Energy to stop a nuclear waste incinerator planned for Idaho, it was just the tip of the smokestack (HCN, 4/10/00: Incinerator plans go up in smoke).

In early June, two conservation groups, Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free and Idaho's Environmental Defense Institute, notified the DOE that they intended to sue again - this time over the agency's operation of a high-level radioactive waste treatment facility at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL).

Since 1982, the DOE has treated 8 million gallons of liquid toxic waste at the INEEL "calciner." The waste, including spent nuclear fuel, is poured onto a bed heated to 500 degrees Celsius. "In theory, only water vaporizes off, so they get rid of the water and are left with this dry material," says Erik Ringelberg, director of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free.

But INEEL officials admit that they don't know exactly what's gone up the calciner smokestacks. One of the problems with monitoring the emissions is that they are very acidic, says INEEL spokesman Brad Bugger. "So when we heat it up in the calciner, it goes up the stack and ... it basically destroyed the equipment."

In early June, the DOE put the calciner on "standby," shutting it down for the rest of the year. Bugger says it will now decide whether to upgrade the facility to meet federal Clean Air Act standards or close it for good.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Andrea Barnett