Atomic Tourism Anyone?

February 4, 2006

By Laurie Kirby, Woodstock, New York

Eighteen miles from the town of Arco in Idaho there’s an unremarkable-looking industrial building which is officially listed as a National Historic Landmark. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places. This is the Experimental Breeder Reactor Number 1, where the use of nuclear fission to produce electricity was first demonstrated. Would you like to be an atomic tourist? The Department of Energy offers guided tours for curious visitors.

Outside the building you’ll see two prototypes for nuclear aircraft engines, a dangerously crazy idea that luckily never made it into our skies. (At one point in the tests of these engines, controls failed and released enough radioactivity to contaminate 1,500 acres.)

But the equally crazy idea of blasting nuclear power sources into space is alive and strong. Space nukes are being assembled and tested at another part of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) where the Experimental Breeder Reactor is located.

The INL has another distinction: the whole facility is a Superfund site, on the EPA’s National Priorities List. The list of contaminants at this site is long and includes chromium-contaminated cooling tower blow-down water, waste solvents, acids, radionuclides, and laboratory wastes. 17,300 tons of hazardous materials were deposited directly into the Snake River Plain Aquifer, an important water resource in southeastern Idaho.


A December 2005 NASA document, the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (DPEIS) for a program to develop two new kinds of Radioisotope Power Systems (RPSs) for space missions, includes an interesting picture of the situation at INL and other Department of Energy sites where space nukes are being developed and produced.

NASA’s main conclusion in its DPEIS is that further development of its space nuclear power program would not have substantial environmental effects because it would fit right into ongoing activities at these sites, "activities that would be expected to continue whether or not the development of the advanced RPS designs continue or not [sic]." In other words, producing new space nukes will be business-as-usual at the Department of Energy’s facilities as they pursue the work of the U.S.’s military-nuclear complex.

But should we assume that business-as-usual is environmentally acceptable? The DPEIS includes a description in NASA’s own words of the environmental mess already created at INL and the other sites. This clearly shows that business-as-usual is a bad idea and should be abandoned as soon as possible before further damage is done.

In NASA’s own words

Thus in 2004 alone INL "managed" almost 4 million cubic feet of radioactive waste and more than 70 million cubic feet (enough to fill two Empire State Buildings) of other waste. Its "inventory" in 2004 included 676,679 cubic feet of radioactive wastes. The more long-lasting are charmingly known as "legacy wastes".

What other legacies shall we leave at our historic places? Well, another locus for space nuke production is Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where you can find "transuranic waste, mixed transuranic waste, low-level radioactive waste, mixed low-level radioactive waste, hazardous waste, and nonhazardous waste. ... Contaminants such as strontium-90, tritium, americium-241, cesium-137, plutonium-238/239, nitrates, metals, volatile organic compounds, and high explosives have been measured above regulatory levels" in local aquifers.

Then there’s Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico which is seeing ongoing cleanup of contaminated sites featuring such pollutants as uranium, thorium, transuranic elements, fission products, tritium, and hexavalent chromium. The groundwater there has been contaminated with trichloroethane, nitrates, and petroleum hydrocarbons, and there is extensive storage of hazardous wastes: radioactive, chemical, explosive, medical, asbestos, and PCBs.

All these places encompass important archeological sites and land culturally important to Native American groups.

Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a likely site for testing of RPSs, boasts two Superfund sites on the National Priorities List. Groundwater "contaminants of concern" there include "trichloroethene, trichloroethane, benzene, chloroform, arsenic, vinyl chloride, tetrachloroethane, dichloroethane, tetrachloroethene, diisopropyl methylphosponate, and carbon tetrachloride."

Let’s conclude our atomic tour of the space-nuke world with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, itself a National Priorities List Superfund site. Here you can sample an even longer list of groundwater contaminants. The EPA estimates that "68,000 people obtain drinking water from municipal wells within 4 miles of the site." Hazardous materials at JPL, the EPA tells us, include "waste solvents such as tetrachloroethene, solid rocket fuel propellants, cooling tower chemicals, sulfuric acid, Freon, mercury, and chemical laboratory wastes."

"Mission aborted"

NASA’s DPEIS downplays the all-too-real risk of a catastrophic release of plutonium if NASA’s dismal record of rocket and space shuttle launch accidents continues. "No mission-specific risk assessment [for the actual use of new RPSs] ... has been developed to date," says NASA. But it does give us a list of U.S. space missions that have used radioactive power sources. Of 29 launches to date, 3 have failed ("Mission aborted") — not an encouraging safety record, and it doesn't include the two Shuttle disasters. One of the aborted missions, in 1964, burned up its payload on reentry, spreading plutonium-238 all over the world in amounts which dwarfed the radioactivity released from atmospheric nuclear tests and from Chernobyl. Another, the failed Apollo 13 Moon mission, left its nuclear battery at the bottom of the Tonga Trench in the Pacific Ocean, where it will be our "legacy" to who knows what creatures in future ages. And the list shows that we have spread the toxic seed of plutonium to half a dozen places on the surface of the Moon as well as 5 on Mars and several space probes wandering beyond Saturn. Our back yard is growing bigger.

Comments sought

NASA is seeking public comments on its DPEIS. If you feel that business-as-usual is not acceptable when it means continuing the production and spread of irremediable poisons, you can let them know. Comments may be sent via email to

or to:

Dr. Ajay Misra
Science Mission Directorate
Mail Code 3C67
NASA Headquarters
300 E Street, NW
Washington DC 20546-0001
(202) 358-1588

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