18 October 2005
Groups ask for review of plutonium plan
By Michelle Dunlop
Times-News writer

BOISE -- Go back to the drawing board.

That's the message 30 regional and national groups have asked Idaho and Wyoming officials to send to the Department of Energy when it comes to plans to consolidate the production of plutonium in Idaho.

On Monday, local interest groups including the Snake River Alliance, the Idaho Nurses Association and the Boulder-White Clouds Council sent letters to the congressional delegations and governors of both Idaho and Wyoming urging them to ask the Energy Department to take another look at the environmental impact statement for plutonium consolidation that it  released earlier this year.

"The plutonium impact statement was completely inadequate, and if we  proceed with what DOE is proposing, there will be accidents and there will be contamination," said Jeremy Maxand, executive director with Snake River Alliance. "The DOE has no legal obligation to respond to public comments beyond the draft EIS, so if major problems exist, and we anticipate they will, the public has no recourse beyond litigation."

The federal government wants to consolidate the manufacturing of plutonium-238, a radioactive substance that will be used in space  batteries and in national security applications, at the Idaho National Laboratory. Plutonium-238 is not considered to be a weapons-grade material.

The Advanced Test Reactor at INL is already used in the production  process, which involves other Energy Department facilities in New Mexico and Tennessee. Department officials estimate the proposed consolidation plan would cost $250 to $300 million and would be completed in 2011.

Critics of the consolidation plan have questioned the department for  failing to evaluate consolidation at other facilities. They also lament that the federal government made the decision to resume plutonium-238 production in 2001. Currently, the department buys plutonium-238 from Russia for use in space applications. The country relies on old domestic stock for national security use. The decision to restart production was not up for discussion under the current environmental impact statement.

A final environmental impact statement is expected to be released in  spring 2006.

Last week, Wyoming's Gov. Dave Freudenthal denounced the idea of consolidation at a facility so close to his state border. However, Idaho officials have endorsed the plan -- with some restrictions. Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's administration has asked the federal government to outline  its plan to transport the radioactive waste created at INL to out-of-state disposal locations. The state also requested independent monitoring of air quality and worker conditions at the site.

"Plutonium is a very dangerous and toxic material," said Judith Murray, executive director of the Idaho Nurses Association, in a press statement. "The DOE has a pretty bad track record, so when a project like this comes knocking at your door, you better take notice and start asking questions."

Times-News writer Michelle Dunlop can be reached at 735-3237 or by e-mail at mdunlop@magicvalley.com.


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