how safe is Idaho nuke lab in event of quake?

By Jim Stanford on March 16, 2011

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The INL Advanced Test Reactor compound west of Idaho Falls. The reactor is the most powerful of its kind in the United States.

As reactors melt down and release radiation in the wake of a 9.0 earthquake in Japan, it’s natural to wonder about the safety of the nuclear facility near Idaho Falls, 100 miles upwind of Jackson Hole.

The Idaho National Laboratory sits in the middle of a seismically active area where more than 9,300 quakes occurred between 1972 and 2007, according to its website. The largest of those quakes was the 7.3-magnitude Borah Peak temblor in 1983, which killed two children in Challis, caused an estimated $12.5 million in damage and lifted the state’s highest peak by 7 feet.

Although there are fault lines in the surrounding ranges, the nuclear lab is located in the Snake River plain, where only minor quakes — less than 2.0 in magnitude — have been recorded since the monitoring system was installed, according to the facility’s website.

But a watchdog group in Jackson Hole, Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, says the lab doesn’t have enough safeguards. Of particular concern, says the group’s executive director, James Powell, is the cooling system in the main reactor, where pipes run through unreinforced concrete and could rupture in a quake.

“All the backup systems in place would be useless if the pipes getting water to the reactor are broken,” Powell says.

Seismic activity around the Idaho National Laboratory. The yellow star marks the epicenter of the 1983 Borah Peak earthquake, magnitude 7.3, about 50 miles from the compound.

Established in 1949 and formerly known by the euphemism Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, or INEEL, the lab conducted landmark nuclear research, especially for Navy submarines, and once was home to the “largest concentration of reactors in the world,” according to its website. Fifty-two reactors were built and operated at the site, although today only one main complex, the Advanced Test Reactor, still operates. The lab is run by Battelle Energy Alliance for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Advanced Test Reactor, built in 1967, relies on the same backup power systems as Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi complex, which has been rocked by explosions and fires following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The ongoing release of radiation from the crippled plant is the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

When the earthquake struck, the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi automatically shut down, as they would in a similar event at INL. But the fuel still needs to be cooled, and the tsunami knocked out the diesel generators that would have powered the cooling system, forcing operators to rely on batteries, which lasted only a few hours. Tokyo Electric Power Co. has been unable to cool the fuel, which is why the situation continues to spiral out of control.

One of several explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi complex.

Amy Lientz, spokeswoman for INL, says the lab’s reactor complex has diesel generators and batteries as backups, in the event power is lost. Battery power is sufficient to cool the reactor, she says. Staff at the lab are closely monitoring the disaster in Japan to see if lessons can be applied, she says.

The lab has a million gallons of water stored in “seismically sound, above-ground” tanks to cool the reactor in the event of an emergency, she says. The backup power systems would help pump the water. Also, an emergency team drills regularly, and the lab has an air monitoring system on and off site to warn the public of danger, she says.

Unlike the facility in Japan, the Advanced Test Reactor is not producing commercial power and thus operates at a lower temperature and pressure, Lientz says.

KYNF’s Powell sees a problem with that reasoning. “The folks at INL have long stood behind the guise that because the ATR operates at a lower power level than commercial reactors, it doesn’t require the same safeguards, which is scary,” he says. “The ATR, much like the Japanese reactors, has inherent faults with its primary cooling system.”

More than 600,000 Soviet troops were enlisted to clean up the Chernobyl disaster. Radiation levels were so high that each soldier could stay at the site less than a minute and dump one shovel full of debris.

Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free formed in the late 1990s to oppose a plan by the Department of Energy to build an incinerator for nuclear waste at INEEL. Led by attorney Gerry Spence, the group successfully sued to block the plan. Bumper stickers bearing the slogan “Plutonium-Free Powder” became a sensation.

KYNF does not oppose nuclear power, Powell says, but the group has kept a close eye on the Advanced Test Reactor because of its age. Over the years KYNF has obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act about the reactor’s design and found “pretty disturbing” reports about safety, he says.

A report compiled by the Environmental Defense Institute documents 20 unscheduled, safety-related shutdowns of the reactor from 2007-2010.

“The recent problems in Japan should serve as a warning about the inherent dangers of nuclear reactors that are often overlooked during times of smooth operation,” Powell says.

(Fukushima Daiichi explosion image via NIRS; Chernobyl photo by Igor Kostin)

Most media reports tend to downplay the danger of radiation being carried by wind from Japan toward the western United States. The consensus is that most of the radioactive particles will be dispersed in the ocean, as if that’s somehow OK. This Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune Q&A seeks to dispel fears. But that hasn’t stopped Americans from buying up stocks of potassium iodide pills.

Aiding the relief effort in Japan is as simple as texting REDCROSS to the number 90999 ($10 donation). For information on aid groups, click here.

Of all the terrifying images to surface following the quake, these two videos of the tsunami are perhaps the most astounding:

This clip captures how quickly the water flooded, from a car narrowly driving away to houses being uplifted in a matter of minutes.

And the ripples felt in Santa Cruz were stronger than expected:


Posted under Environment

17 Comments so far

  1. joe March 16, 2011 5:50 pm

    nukes to the west, jonahs to the south, calderas to the north, happy small town republicans to the east, while enduring the climate change chuck holes of euphemism and guise.

  2. Homer March 16, 2011 6:21 pm

    9.0 magnitude quake on the teton fault on a 30 below week, INEEL reactor meltdown. How Safe is an interesting question, but what were learning with japan is that in an absolute worst case scenario, it wont matter, were all screwed.

  3. js March 16, 2011 6:29 pm

    It’s not inconceivable to have a quake in June take out one or more of the Snake River dams.

    We’re dealing with the best technology of the ’60s and ’70s in those reactors. KYNF is right: If the cooling pipes rupture in a quake, it doesn’t matter whether the backup diesel generators work, which after the tsunami flood they didn’t.

    Also, here’s an update from Amy at INL, regarding the backup power system: “The battery life is long enough to support pumping the cooling water over the reactor to cool it in case of a power outage. Because our ATR is at such a low temperature, it takes about 30 minutes of forced cooling water to cool the reactor. So our back battery system will more than accommodate that time frame.”

    And, via reader JD:

    Calculated time for radioactive particles to cross the Pacific from the power plants in Japan to big West Coast cities if the particles take a direct path and move at a speed of 20 mph (estimated distance and time):

    Anchorage 3,457 miles 7 days
    Honolulu 3,847 miles 8 days
    Seattle 4,792 miles 10 days
    Los Angeles 5,477 miles 11 days

  4. D March 16, 2011 7:18 pm

    I haven’t seen any mention of this place on the maps the major new channels shown the last few days of nuke facilities in the US. I had no idea it was even there. Where exactly is it I couldn’t read the map? Its really to bad whats happening over there.

  5. js March 16, 2011 7:45 pm

    KIFI TV in Idaho Falls did a story, which sparked some debate:

    You drive past INL on the way to Sun Valley. A fenced-off area stretches for miles, with vaguely ominous signs like “Test Area. Stay Out.”
    Here’s a Google map:

  6. dswift March 16, 2011 8:15 pm

    Dunno. I’m having a hard time getting worked up about the horrors that loom right now. Apparently Camus, Sartre and Rimbaud prepared me for this moment.

    Tiny potential outbreaks of doom everywhere. “May you live in interesting times.” But we still got gumption, don’t we? Locally we’ll band together to fill potholes. Maybe the fellers who live even closer to the EIEIO nukes will start putting in backup irrigation for the cooling rod pools.

    A little 80s Techno-Despair will make it all go down easier.

  7. D March 16, 2011 10:00 pm

    The one thing about the whole Japan situation that is very admirable and note worthy is how calm cooperative and peaceful they have remained. While I would like to think the same of our surroundings I have to wonder. No riots no looting none of that just people helping people and a few risking their lives for the sake of the country. Pretty damn impressive in my book.

  8. Homer March 17, 2011 12:45 am

    @dswift, that EIEIO thing was pretty good, I knew I wasn’t the only one posting half way into the single malt

  9. js March 18, 2011 1:09 pm
  10. D March 21, 2011 8:32 am

    Look at this link it below, no mention of this place?

  11. js March 21, 2011 10:26 am

    Idaho National Laboratory is not a power plant. It is a research and testing facility. There are three reactors on site, the most powerful of which is the Advanced Test Reactor. The other two are low power.

  12. D March 21, 2011 2:20 pm

    I See I see.

  13. JJ March 21, 2011 8:32 pm

    Pure irresponsible fear mongering! The reactor is small. It is nowhere near the size to produce commercial electric power. It is for research purposes only. It is not used for weapons research. That is done in Tennesee. The INEL reactor is used for scientific and commercial research only. One of the things they make is medical isotopes. And the biggest joke and lie of all is “Plutonium free powder”. The reactor does not nor has ever used plutonium. It uses uranium as fuel. I personally don’t think nuclear power is the answer especially with a $5 billion price tag per plant and a 30% more cost to operate one. We have enough coal to sustain us for the next 250 years. I also believe we should look into shutting down aging reactors in a seismic zone. But the INEL is the least of our fears.

  14. Homer March 24, 2011 4:16 pm

    JJ, are you telling us with authority that no matter what, even in the worst case scenario, INEEL downwinders have nothing to fear.

  15. James Powell April 2, 2011 7:24 pm

    JJ – The ‘Plutonium Free Powder’ slogan was adopted after KYNF filed a lawsuit again the Department of Energy (DOE), who was at the time, trying to build a Plutonium Incinerator at the Idaho National Lab. KYNF won the lawsuit, it is now known that incineration is a terribly dangerous way to dispose of plutonium waste, and the slogan stuck.

    With regard to the ATR, the fuel used is uranium not plutonium, you are correct. It is worth noting however, that while the principle use of the ATR is irradiation experiments and medical isotope production, the DOE and INL have requested $15 million dollars from congress to use the ATR as the plutonium factory of the US. There will be plenty of plutonium if that funding goes through this session of congress, as it did in last year’s Senate Omnibus Bill that was ultimately pulled.

    The request can be read here:

    ATR is a prime example of an aging reactor in a seismic zone.

  16. Suzy Q April 4, 2011 7:20 am

    INL is the size of Rhode Island. It also has all the contaminated waste from Three Mile Island. There are things the government does over there that are protected by Homeland Security. I remember hearing a whistleblower from INL talk about how the Army incinerates milled scraps of depleted uranium over there. DU is considered pyrophoric. I doubt we’ll find any information on that…. I encourage you to learn more about INL, JJ. There’s a lot to know, and a lot of history there, I guess you’re unaware of.

    JJ, Plutonium Free Powder stickers were made in response to a transuranic (including plutonium) waste incinerator the DOE wanted to let British Nuclear Fuels build. (A British company whose contamination at Sellafield in the UK has reached lobsters in the North Sea) Plutonium Free Powder stickers had nothing to do with a nuclear reactor.

    There have been OVER FIFTY, (and I think it’s 52) nuclear reactor MELTDOWNS over there over the years, testing design parameters on nuclear reactors. Some were intentional, and some were accidental, resulting in the loss of life. Also, much of the contaminated waste over there was not stored properly, and has seeped into the ground, and reached the largest aquifer in our country, the Snake River Aquifer.

    Please see for more information on Idaho National Laboratory, sitting on our back doorstep, 80 miles upwind of us. also has a nice new look to their web site, and relevant links and information.!

    Every few years, Idaho National Lab spends millions of dollars changing their name. I think it’s called INL again, but I’m not sure.

    JJ, I’m suggesting that you go to the Snake River Alliance link, and learn the facts about INL, and it’s long history of bad management of dangerous substances. They ran a nuclear reactor over there without any safety shields at all, while trying to create a lightweight reactor that could fly in a plane. They continue to say, “oh, if we only knew then, what we know now,” which is a crock of shit, because they still don’t know anything. They continue to tell people that they know so much more now than they did back then. Then they tell people that we don’t understand, because we are not scientists, and this is good for jobs in Idaho…and their condescending attitude stinks.

    Perhaps you should even go over there and take a tour. They LOVE to bring people on tours over there. I have some photos somewhere of some orange looking smoke coming out of a smokestack over there. I can’t remember what that thing was, or if we shut it down or not. I’m pretty sure we did. (I would suggest you go on the tour with members of the Snake River Alliance who will also tell you the truth, and I’m pretty sure they would be happy to go on a tour with you.)

    The Dept. of Energy used to be called the Atomic Energy Commission. INL used to be just outside of Chicago somewhere, and then it was decided to move it to the middle of nowhere in Idaho because of the DANGER TO HUMANS.

    There’s not enough time in the day to learn about everything going on at INL, but everyone should learn more. I always think of Arjun Makhajani (IEER) and how he likes to read poetry, but I saw him on the national news the other day, talking about all this nuclear junk. I’m sure he’d rather be reading poetry, but there he was, commenting on the Japanese nuclear disaster.

    From IEER: “Arjun Makhijani, President of IEER, holds a Ph.D. in engineering (specialization: nuclear fusion) from the University of California at Berkeley. He has produced many studies and articles on nuclear fuel cycle related issues, including weapons production, testing, and nuclear waste, over the past twenty years. He is the principal author of the first study ever done (completed in 1971) on energy conservation potential in the U.S. economy. Most recently, Dr, Makhijani has authored Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy (RDR Books and IEER Press, 2007), the first analysis of a transition to a U.S. economy based completely on renewable energy, without any use of fossil fuels or nuclear power. He is the principal editor of Nuclear Wastelands and the principal author of Mending the Ozone Hole, both published by MIT Press.”

  17. Suzy Q April 4, 2011 7:38 am

    Here we go, check this out from the Environmental Defense Institute and Chuck Broscious. It’s the Citizen’s Guide to INL link. and has lots of INL’s history in it.

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