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Nuclear Notes – 5 – More Accidents of Radioactive Waste – Rocky Flats Nuclear Pollution Lives On In Idaho, New Mexico

July 7, 2018
2017 - 10 - 07 - Minuteman Missile Site - 1

Protesting the 49 on hair-trigger nuclear missile sites in Colorado., October 07, 2017. This at N-8, a Minuteman Missile site outside of Raymer, Colorado. Left, Bob Kinsey, of the Green Party and Colorado Coalition for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Center, Judith Mohling of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center out of Boulder. I don’t know the person on the right in the black shirt and red hat.

Nuclear Notes – 5

Once upon a time – thirty years ago – there was a powerful popular movement aimed at derailing both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Today it has shrunk to naught, or nearly. We need a national movement to cut the military budget, transfer the funds to human needs, press our government to once again seriously engage in international negotiations for nuclear disarmament, and stop with feeding the population the illusion that there is a technological fix that will make nuclear energy safe. “Gaseous Ignitions” are radioactive explosions.

As the time when the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge opens to hikers and the like – this despite widespread public opposition and outcry of the possible-to-probable remaining radiation dangers, stories of Rocky Flats related radioactive contamination are again in the news. A news story in the latest Spring, 2018 edition of Nukewatch Quarterly a nuclear weapons and energy watchdog publication out of Luck, Wisconsin, has an article by John LaForge, the publication’s editor, entitled “Rad Waste’s ‘Gaseous Ignition’ & ‘Exothermal Events’ are explosions.”

The article, based upon news reports from ABC News, the Seattle Times, the Japan Times, Industrial Equipment News and Fox News among others – indicating that any claims of “false news” concerning the incident are not serious – notes “that four barrels of military radioactive waste blew apart April 11 (2018) somewhere inside the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) property near Idaho Falls. INL officials said the ‘ruptured’ (read exploded) or ‘breached’ barrels contained a sludge of unidentified fluids and solvents.”

As LaForge notes, as a result of decades of government secrecy, INL officials do not know the exact contents of the exploded barrels, despite the fact that,, unfortunately there have many incidents of exploding radioactive waste has been around for a long time.

The Colorado – Rocky Flats connection?

Those leaky 55 gallon drums of radioactive contaminated materials – four of which experienced “gaseous ignition” otherwise – and more accurately – known as explosions,  came from Rocky Flats.


As with so many other aspects of life, the maintenance of that exploding radioactive sludge – which should be under federal government tight management and supervision – has been subcontracted, farmed out to a private company, in this case Department of Energy (D.O.E.) contractor “Fluor Idaho.” The Idaho National Laboratory has been processing nuclear waste since 1954 as a “temporary” solution to the problem of nuclear waste.

According to an excellent two-part series on the Idaho National Laboratory in the Idaho Mountain Express by Mark Dee, Fluor Idaho is approaching the end of a five-year $1.4 contract to process nuclear waste. There is now talk of extending the facility’s life, a move that would bring more nuclear waste into the state and is opposed by the state’s environmental movement.

As Mark Dee explains in the article:

The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant packs and processes transuranic waste housed at the Idaho National Laboratory before it’s shipped to a permanent storage site in New Mexico. But the facility is almost through with its mission. By its deadline at the end of 2018, it will have packed up 65,000 cubic meters of above-ground transuranic waste—enough to fill 26 Olympic-size swimming pools.ts one-of-a-kind facility, the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant, has been slated for closure, a move that would put its 600 employees out of work. The 55 gallon drums taken there are placed into a “super-compactor,” “a massive hydraulic ram capable of exerting 4 million pounds of force – enough to reduce a 55-gallon drum to a puck 4 inches high.” The crush material is then repacked and shipped to New Mexico.  

Actually, like the hot potato it is, the nuclear waste created at Rocky Flats would first go to the Idaho processing plant where it is, from what I can glean, compacted and the shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, “the end of the line” for most radioactive material processed in Idaho and elsewhere.

The New Mexico operation is the only nuclear waste depository in the United States; located 2000 feet below the surface, surrounded by salt beds. Radioactive explosions have taken place now all along what is referred to as the nuclear fuel chain, from Rocky Flats, Colorado, to Idaho Falls to Carlsbad, New Mexico. In 2014, a truck exploded deep below the surface, blasting plutonium contaminated waste throughout the site.

Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island – Not The Only Radioactive Explosions.

The same issue of Nuclear Watch Quarterly  with the story of the explosion of Rock Flats plutonium sludge at the Idaho National Laboratory also gives a list of other nuclear accidents and explosions of radioactive materials. Frankly it is a short list. Do a simple “Google” search and many more pop up. The additional information on accidents/explosions of nuclear material is important to expos for a number of reasons.

In and of itself, given the toxicity of the stuff, it is the civic duty of the government to share such information with a public that could be effective and not hide behind “national security” excuses as happens most of the time. When the public has been informed – if the Rocky Flats story is any indication  – it is more because the public pried the information out of an unwilling and uncooperative, oftentimes hostile government.

Nuclear Watch’s list included:

December 2, 1952. Chalk River (Ontario). A Canadian reactor exploded as a result of loss of coolant; It became the first major commercial nuclear reactor disaster. Among those involved in the initial clean up, was one Jimmy Carter, who 27 years later would become U.S. President. There was a second radioactive fire at Chalk River in 1958. Between the two accidents there more than a thousand men were involved in cleanup operations.

September 11, 1957. Rocky FlatsThe 1957 fire which became known to the public only 12 years later after a second radioactive fire broke out, put some 30 to 44 pounds of breathable plutonium-239 and PU-240 to catch fire in what came to be known as the second largest industrial fire in U.S. history. Nothing was done to protect or even inform its downwind residents in Jefferson County, Denver’s northwestern suburb or in Denver itself. The May 11, 1969 “Mother’s Day” Rocky Flats fire which also released plutonium into the air through the air vents in the roof of the building. The buildings that caught fire, buildings 776-777 contained 7,600 pounds of plutonium, enough for 1,000 nuclear bombs at the time.

October 7,1957. Windscale/Sellafield (Great Britain). A fire there ignited three tons of uranium and dispersed radioactive pollution over parts of England and Northern Europe. It was reported to be the worst nuclear accident in Great Britain’s history, ranked in severity as a level 5 of a possible 7 on the International Nuclear Event scale. A recent 2016 story in the Independent expressed fears of another nuclear accident as “radioactive plutonium and uranium have been stored in degrading plastic bottles at the Sellafield site. According to the same article there were 97 incidents between July 2012 and July 2013.

September 29, 1975. Kyshtym/Chelyabinsk-65 (Russia – then the USSR). A tank holding 70 to 80 metric tons of highly radioactive liquid waste exploded, contaminating an estimated 250,000 people and permanently depopulating 30 towns which were leveled and removed from Russian maps. Covered up by Soviet authorities till 1989, the authorities finally revealed that 20 million curies of long-lived isotopes like cesium were released and it was later declared a Level 6 disaster on the International Nuclear Event scale. The long covered-up disaster contaminated up to 10,000 square miles making it the third or 4th most serious radiation accident ever recorded. At one of the nearby lakes, the radioactive concentration  is reported to exceed 120 million curies – 2.5 times the amount of radiation released in Chernobyl.

As one researcher noted: The CIA had known about it by 1960.  The documentation was  long kept away from the public so as not to put the image of the emerging nuclear industry at risk or cause people to ask questions about safety issues at the US government’s own Hanford nuclear site.

The same Nukewatch Quarterly article goes on to name a number of other major nuclear accidents: Santa Susana (Simi Valley, Calif). July 12, 1959, Church Rock (New Mexico). July 16, 1979 referred to as the largest radioactive spill in U.S. history, Monju, (Japan). December 8, 1995, and another one at Tokai-Mura (Japan), September 30, 1999. The links to these are provided here, but as mentioned above, there were many more, that have been identified. How many more elsewhere in the world, remain unknown?

1964 - 09 - France - Chenanceau - Phyllis Martin - edited

Chenanceau Chateau on the Loire River in the fall of 1964. Woman profiled on right is fellow classmate at the time, Phyllis Martin. Stretches of the river are polluted with radioactive waste from a closed nuclear power plant nearby owned and operated by AVENA, an important French nuclear power company.

Stories like these – in bits and pieces – appear in the press the world over. For example, in preparing this article, a news article appeared in the French press about the leakage of radioactive waste from waste pond – supposedly sealed – whose radioactive pollution has contaminated fifteen miles of the Loire River in France. The facility run by Areva, one of France’s largest nuclear energy companies was closed in 1980, but recent inspections have revealed that the waste pond is leaking uranium, radium 226 and radon 222. A 2014 investigation revealed levels of contaminants 200 times above accepted levels.

There are many more articles of this nature. The idea that accidents happened “only” at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima severely underplays the dangers.

Another Reason To Downplay all the dangers of radioactivity: The resurgence of the Nuclear Power Industry. 

The public relations campaign to sanitize nuclear energy wants to downplay the sizable – one might say – insurmountable risks involved in pursuing nuclear energy as a fossil fuel alternative. The campaign is akin to putting make up on the proverbial corpse. Those supporting the idea try to downplay, minimize both the risks and the costs involved in going down that path.

Public support and/or opposition is quite labile, depending on the survey., thus the need for an intense public relations campaign. Its supporters include gazillionaires like Bill Gates. some venture capitalists and some  prominent members of the Democratic Party who believe, mistakenly from where I am sitting, that nuclear energy is viable alternative to fossil fuels. A recent PBS documentary argues that new technologies for cooling and slowing nuclear reactions without the use of water are portrayed as a technological breakthrough that would make nuclear energy “accident proof.”

Nuclear energy advocates argue that – yes-  Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima happened, (Fukushima and Chernobyl are “still happening” by the way),  but these are the “only” accidents in an otherwise admirable safety record. Furthermore the industry is developing a whole new generation of smaller experimental reactors, some which don’t use water as coolant – that will, we are told – make nuclear energy something close to risk free.

The government (U.S. and others), the nuclear industry itself and those venture capitalists that have heavily invested in the idea, are engaged in a widespread public relations campaign to make both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy fashionable once again. For example, the World Nuclear Association, international lobbying group for the nuclear energy industry argues that “there have only been three major accidents across 16,000 cumulative reactor-years of operation in 32 countries. ”

The campaign has been in motion for some time but now, under Trump it has been given new life. Trump’s energy policy, in a nutshell, boils down more fossil fuels, develop nuclear and downplay and discourage alternative energy sources, solar, wind, thermal, what have you. In so doing, he is building on a plan of action around energy development, the National Energy Task Force Report of 2001, developed by then Vice President and Iraq War advocate Dick Cheney early in the George W. Bush Administration. As a result of this media blitz, the dark side of nuclear energy – its history of accidents, radioactive explosions – is downplayed as if it hardly exists or is insignificant.

Trump and Nuclear Weapons’ Development

Nor despite Trump’s crazy idea of reviving the arms race in space with his call for a “Space Command” can put all the blame on the Trump Administration as he is, in fact, if rather aggressively so, building on decisions made during the Obama Administration.

As an article at the Arms Control Association website notes:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a major report in October 2017 that estimates the nuclear weapons spending plans President Donald Trump inherited from his predecessor will cost taxpayers $1.2 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars between fiscal years 2017 and 2046. This amounts to about 6 percent of all spending on national defense anticipated for that period, as of President Barack Obama’s final budget request to Congress in February 2016. When the effects of inflation are included, the 30-year cost would approach $1.7 trillion, according to a projection by the Arms Control Association.

$1.2 trillion – that is $1200 billion – over the next thirty years to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons program! I’m going to write about the politics of all this in another blog entry. Let me just note here, that it is impossible to invest infrastructure, education, healthcare, mental health and the general well-being of the country and at the same time pour money into nuclear weapons specifically and otherwise all kinds of military spending. For all his bombast, there is nothing in this program that Trump originated.

Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News

When it comes to nuclear weapon development, he’s building on a bipartisan program that flies through both houses of Congress and willing signed by sitting presidents, both Republican and Democrat. Of course Trump is quite happy to feed the Pentagon, the Dept. of Energy and the military industries that are among his strongest supporters.

When it comes to developing nuclear energy – as an alternative to fossil fuels – Barack Obama’s position was more ambivalent.

Generally speaking, if one can, historically, Republicans have been the main supporters of continued and more aggressive discovery, develop and use of fossil fuels while it is the Democratic legislators and its big money funders that have argued for nuclear energy, on the grounds that it leaves less of a carbon footprint – virtually none at all compared to oil, natural gas and coal. (I’ll come back to this subject shortly). But then the Democratic Party base is strongly committed both to reducing the nuclear arms race and is opposed to developing nuclear energy as a fossil fuel alternative. So on these key nuclear issues, the party, the Democratic Party, that is, is divided and has been for some time.

It should not be a surprise then that where it came to nuclear energy, Obama’s position was uneven and fluctuated. On the one hand Obama offered the nuclear energy industry $12.5 billion in low-interest loans – no small amount – to research and develop a new generation of smaller nuclear reactors that don’t use water as coolant. On the other hand, late in his administration he looked like he was going to eliminate the post of Director of Nuclear Energy Policy, eliminating that director’s post on the National Security Council. But in the end, the position was not eliminated. Pressure from the anti-nuclear movement in the country and world wide led Obama to hesitate articulating a clear policy.

Whatever, as soon as Donald Trump won the presidency, he almost immediately chose Aaron Weston, a former House staffer and nuclear engineer who served as lead counsel for the House Science, Space and Technology Committee from 2013 to 2017. Later he joined American Council for Capital Formation, a think tank and lobbying group. He’s currently listed as working on government stakeholder relations at the Idaho National Laboratory.

There is nothing short of a stampede then, to invest in nuclear power technologies and new weapons’ systems, an approach that is sure to win the support of the traditional  arms manufacturing industry as well as the venture capitol elements racing “to find the cure” to radiation leaks and explosions. Once upon a time – thirty years ago – there was a powerful popular movement aimed at derailing both. Today it has shrunk to naught, or nearly. We need a national movement to cut the military budget, transfer the funds to human needs, press our government to once again seriously engage in international negotiations for nuclear disarmament, and stop with feeding the population the illusion that there is a technological fix that will make nuclear energy safe. 

Modular Vaults Dry Store (MVDS) is a dry storage system used at Idaho Engineering Laboratory and at Fort St. Vrain to store spent nuclear fuel.

Ft. St. Vrain Nuclear Power Plant, Platteville Colorado 

The state of Colorado, not to be outdone by nuclear power lemons in California (see above) has its very own nuclear power lemon, the Fort St. Vrain Nuclear Power Plant, Platteville. As a 1991 article in the Los Angeles Times notes:

The plant, designed to generate up to 330 megawatts of power–enough to supply a third of Denver’s needs–now has barely enough juice left to power three 100-watt light bulbs.The reactor once operated at about 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Now it percolates along at about 150 degrees, waiting for the day when the remaining fuel is removed.

The Platteville plant was closed down in 1989 after a ten-year run.  Being one of the first commercial HTGR designs, the plant was a proof-of-concept for several advanced technologies, and correspondingly raised a number of early adopter problems that required expensive corrections. Yet the plant ran into problems almost immediately, usually operated well below capacity and had technical problems that forced it to close down as a nuclear power plant. This should be a warning to those who believe that advanced technologies can solve the many problems of producing safe, radioactive accident-free power from uranium fission.

The plant operated at an average of 14.6% capacity and hardly ever reached 100% capacity. It was closed down after a control rod got stuck. Shortly thereafter an unrelated steam line cracking was discovered with a price tag of millions of dollars, shutting the plant down temporarily. Then in 1984, equipment problems forced the plant’s closure for 22 months.The plant was unique in that it used pressurized helium gas as a coolant rather than water. The Public Service Company of Colorado preferred to simply close down operations. Between 1989 and 1996 the facility was converted to a natural gas-producing plant.



Nuclear Notes 1 – Chernobyl Fires Then and Now – 1

Nuclear Notes 2 – Chernobyl Fires Then and Now – 2 – The Silent Summer

Nuclear Notes 3 – Colorado’s 49 Nuclear Weapons on Hair Trigger Alert and a Drunken Air Force General in Charge of 450 Land-based ICBMs

Nuclear Notes 4 – Rocky Flats Nuclear Stain on Colorado’s Front Range

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Conklin permalink
    July 7, 2018 6:44 pm

    Thanks for the update Rob, I am really worried about Fukushima, I think it is much worse that we know!

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