Plutonium in your potatoes?

Idaho discovers traces of radioactive pollution in the Snake River Aquifer

  • HIDDEN DANGER: Nuclear waste lies buried in the triangulararea above the INEEL buildings

    photo courtesy INEEL

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. Now, say government officials, plutonium may be floating in the Snake River Aquifer, the source from which 200,000 Idahoans draw water. Last October, four wells ranging between 550 and 600 feet deep on the site of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) yielded water samples that tested positive for minute quantities of plutonium.

"It's a very important water source," says Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance, a group that watchdogs the laboratory. "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."

Government officials say there is no reason to panic: The amount of plutonium discovered is so small that it lies just at the threshold of scientists' ability to detect it * well below federal safety standards. Even so, it's worrisome. No one knows where the plutonium is coming from, and the Bush administration has indicated that nuclear cleanup is not a budget priority, leaving Western lawmakers to wonder how much plutonium needs to leak before it becomes a national issue.

Where's that leak ?

Complicating the problem of cleanup is the fact that the plutonium could be coming from multiple sources.

"We see it (plutonium) there but we can't tell precisely where it's from," says Flint Hall, a hydrogeologist for the state of Idaho's oversight program which, along with the Department of Energy, detected the plutonium. "It is a bit of a mystery trying to understand what the samples mean."

According to Hall, ambient plutonium is already in the atmosphere, from nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific, the American Southwest and around the world between the 1950s and the '70s, as well as from the Chernobyl reactor accident in 1986. The plutonium could also have come from nuclear fuel reprocessing at INEEL, or from a landfill at the lab where wastes from Colorado's Rocky Flats weapons plant are stored.

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, "there's nothing to be done about what's already there." The wells have been sealed with concrete, and eventually time and dilution will take care of the contamination, he says. But if the Radioactive Waste Management Complex is implicated, the government has a tremendous cleanup 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 spokesman 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 this 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 aims to have a plan to put into action by this time next year.

While a year may sound like a long time to a layperson, 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 still plenty of time for cleanup. The metal carries a charge, and is more likely to stick to the aquifer's basaltic layers than it is to go with the flow.

Money matters

Citizen activist 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 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." But, she adds, by the time plutonium is running out of someone's faucet, it will be too late to do anything.

Complicating matters is the proposed Bush administration budget, which would slash the nation's nuclear cleanup funds by 18 percent. That translates into a loss of $122 million for INEEL.

While cleanup programs driven by legal agreements will be protected from such budget cuts, work on decontamination projects "would be the first to go," said Susan Stiger, manager of INEEL Environmental Management Programs, in an interview last month with the Weapons Complex Monitor.

Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo doesn't want to see that happen. 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. Crapo's amendment has been included in the Senate's budget "blueprint," which gives it a good chance of being included in the final version.

"We've got to clean up this site," says Lindsay Northern, a spokesperson for Sen. Crapo. "It's unacceptable to the people who live here, it's unacceptable to the environment and to taxpayers."

Andrea Barnett writes from Paradise Valley, south of Livingston, Mont.


  • Brad Bugger, spokesman for the DOE at INEEL, 208/526-0833;
  • Beatrice Brailsford, Snake River Alliance, 208/234-4782;
  • Mike Crapo, U.S. Senate, 208/334-1776.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Andrea Barnett

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