Guest Opinions

Department of Energy’s ‘forever’ contamination sites at INL

Tami Thatcher
Tami Thatcher

As we’ve recently celebrated Earth Day, it is fitting to understand the “forever” contamination sites the Idaho National Laboratory’s cleanup is leaving behind. Ignoring the spent nuclear fuel and calcine that will supposedly be shipped out of state some day, there are roughly 55 “forever” radioactively contaminated sites of various sizes, and about 30 “forever” asbestos, mercury or military ordnance sites.

The areas contaminated with long-lived radioisotopes that are not being cleaned up will require institutional controls in order to claim that the “remediation” is protective of human health. People must be prevented from coming into contact with subsurface soil or drinking water near some of these sites — forever.

The Department of Energy downplays the mess and usually doesn’t specify how long the controls are required when the time frame is over thousands of years. They just say “indefinite.”

Institutional control of “forever” contamination means they put up a sign, maybe a fence or a soil cap — and assume it will be maintained for millennia. The implication is: Don’t worry about the cost. And besides, you and I won’t be here.

Frequently cited stringent EPA standards such as 4 millirem/year in drinking water are emphasized. But cleanup efforts often won’t come close to achieving the advertised standards.

DOE argued against digging up meaningful amounts of transuranic and other long-lived radioactive waste at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. Only the most egregious, chemically laden, buried waste is being removed. Denying that exorbitant cost to dig up waste and the lack of another place to put it may have played a role, DOE argued that the incremental risk to a worker was too high given the small incremental benefit to a member of the public.

The analysis of the “worker” didn’t come down to concern over radiation workers monitored under DOE programs — which they argued were by definition protective. They argued that a state worker inspecting radioactive shipments would get an excessive radiation dose if working 30 years at the job, unmonitored for radiation. Then the benefit to the public was minimized by ignoring post-10,000 year contamination. Despite “remediation,” radionuclides trickle into the aquifer at RWMC over the next millennia, creating 30 to 100 mrem/yr doses, depending on the soil cap.

Cleanup depends on protecting workers and the public. But studies continue to find that U.S. radiation protection standards aren’t protective. A study of a large population of radiation workers getting an average 200 millirem/year found elevated cancer risk. Find that British Medical Journal study at

If the Department of Energy has its way, maybe all we will need is big sign placed on planet Earth, readable to potential visitors orbiting in space: “High radiation, don’t linger here and don’t drink the water.”

Tami Thatcher is a former nuclear safety analyst at the Idaho National Laboratory and is now a nuclear safety consultant. Find out more at environmental-defense-