11 June 2005
Idaho National Laboratory is poised to become a hub for plutonium production and space-related nuclear projects.
The Department of Energy is expected to release an environmental study later this month that evaluates a plan to consolidate plutonium-238 production and manufacture it into batteries at its Idaho site. The batteries would be used to power NASA space crafts as well as for national security uses like running surveillance equipment in remote locations.
In addition, INL's Naval Reactors Facility could soon begin designing and eventually manufacturing nuclear reactors to power space missions that need more energy than the batteries could provide. That would probably include a manned mission to Mars.
A decision on whether the INL would help design those reactors, and whether the NRF would be home to the work will be made this summer, said Harold McFarlane, an INL deputy associate laboratory director, at a press briefing Friday.
Idaho Falls also will soon house the Center for Space Research, a university-organized center that will be affiliated with INL and its new Center for Advanced Energy Studies.
However, DOE is now also proposing to build a second, smaller plutonium-238 production facility at its Oak Ridge, Tenn., laboratory. That site was originally proposed to be home to the consolidated plutonium work before the DOE changed course two years ago and decided to put it in Idaho.
At public hearings in Idaho Falls this spring, residents raised concerns about generating new waste, as well as the possibility of releases of plutonium-238. That type of plutonium has an 80-year half life, much shorter than plutonium-239, which is used in nuclear bombs.
But that makes it much more reactive, which is why it makes a good heat source for power. Its high radioactivity also makes it more dangerous if inhaled -- the particles can become lodged in lungs.
Employees were accidentally exposed to plutonium on three different occasions at Los Alamos. The Centers for Disease Control found elevated levels of plutonium around the lab and in nonworkers living nearby.
Kotek said the DOE is looking at those incidents and would learn from them.
"We think this is well within our experience to operate safely," he said.
In addition to health risks, Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, a watchdog group, is also concerned about the national security component. Plutonium is still available from Russia for use in non-national security missions, he said.
"The INL is going to become a military facility," if it begins making plutonium and reactors for national security missions, Maxand said. "People in Idaho do not want the site tied to these missions."