Hearing planned on barrel ruptures at E. Idaho nuclear site

January 11, 2019

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A government board that makes recommendations on U.S. Department of Energy facilities plans to hold a public hearing concerning the rupture of four barrels containing radioactive sludge at an eastern Idaho nuclear site.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board will meet in May in Washington, D.C., to discuss the ruptures at the Energy Department’s 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) site in eastern Idaho that includes the Idaho National Laboratory.

The board in a closed meeting last month opted for the public hearing involving the April barrel ruptures at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex.

Three of the four board members voted in favor of holding the meeting, while Bruce Hamilton abstained, citing his concerns about the location of the meeting. “The recent event at Idaho National Laboratory is worthy of further information gathering which could be facilitated by a hearing. Whether that hearing is best accomplished in Washington, D.C., instead of in Idaho is questionable,” he wrote.

Officials say there were no injuries and no threat to the public because of the barrel ruptures. Work later resumed at the facility.

U.S. Department of Energy contractor Fluor Idaho in a statement Thursday said it appreciated the board’s interest in the problems with the barrels and said it “will lend our technical assistance as needed. We have worked with the board over the past several years on technical issues associated with the cleanup mission in Idaho and have always welcomed their input.”

The company has previously said all four 55-gallon (208-liter) barrels appeared to have ruptured the same day they had been packed. An alarm on April 11 alerted officials that one barrel ruptured.

The company reported that three Idaho National Laboratory firefighters who entered the earthen-floored structure on April 11 to extinguish a smoldering barrel reported other possible breaches, and crews outside heard some of the barrels rupture.

The barrels were initially buried in unlined pits in Idaho, but they were unearthed as part of a cleanup process. The company has said the facility had successfully processed about 9,500 barrels before the ruptures occurred.

The barrels were eventually going to be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, but they hadn’t yet gone through a certification process to allow that to occur, Simpson said.

At the underground repository in 2014, a barrel of radioactive waste ruptured after being inappropriately packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The waste had been mixed with organic cat litter to absorb moisture, resulting in a chemical reaction.

The incident resulted in a radiation release that forced the closure of the repository for nearly three years and prompted an expensive recovery effort and a major policy overhaul for handling Cold War-era waste.

The Idaho site has been used for nuclear waste disposal and storage beginning in the 1950s. The federal government has been cleaning it up following court battles and several agreements with Idaho in the 1990s amid concerns by state officials that Idaho was becoming a nuclear waste dump.