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Since 1947, the Idaho Engineering Laboratory, the Department of Energy's lead nuclear lab, has left its imprint on a chunk of desert the size of Rhode Island in southeastern Idaho. [photo: Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks]

American Impressions, Chapter 46: Idaho
Nuclear Frontier

Supersizing is an American impulse. So I was not as surprised as I should have been when I found myself traversing a square of desert in Idaho as big as Rhode Island that happens to be one of the world’s biggest nuclear dumps, the world’s most advanced nuclear reactor research facility, America’s biggest repository of Cold War garbage (I’ll explain in a minute), and one of its densest collections of brilliant scientists. Speak to them about the surrounding 900 square miles of desert and radioactive surrealism, and they’ll sound as chipper as Martha Stewart on nukes: “It’s a good thing.”

The scariest thing was that after listening to them talk so glowingly of their WAGs (Waste Area Groups) and ATR (Advanced Test Reactor) and transuranic trash (stuff you don’t want to rummage through), and after crisscrossing their wasteland of acronyms at the foot of Idaho’s exalting Bitterroot mountain range, I was beginning to agree: It looked like a very good thing.

Yet the Idaho National Engineering Lab (INEL) is one of those perfect examples of the American paradox—of how great this nation can be, and at what terrible costs. The desert lab is a hybrid of monstrosity and ingenuity. It harbors the by-product of the world’s most lethal weaponry. It also has pioneered the greatest developments in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It continues to be indirectly involved in some of the most secret military developments in the nation while providing the world with some of its best hopes for using nuclear energy cheaply and safely, and for containing its endless radioactive half-lives.

I don’t mean to mimic Richard Preston, the Stephen King of journalism who made “Ebola” a household word and recently used a pair of anonymous quote marks in The New Yorker to make us all believe, mistakenly, that New York City’s mosquitoes were armed with biological warheads made in Baghdad. But before shopping for dread in African jungles or Mesopotamian biolabs, we could give places like Idaho a try.

”The reason I don’t believe that calling it a monstrosity helps is because people walk away from monsters,” Kathleen Hain was telling me over something Mexican at an Idaho Falls restaurant. Lane had once developed models of nuclear explosions, describing what would happen if this sort of bomb exploded in that sort of place. She is now managing DOE’s clean-up at INEL. She doesn’t have time for opponents who simply say: “Nukes are bad” and “Get them away from us.” Whether nuclear waste happens to be in Idaho or South Carolina, and whether it’s going to New Mexico or Nevada, it should still matter equally to people from Washington to Florida. She has a way of making every radionuclide of the nuclear age sound like every American’s personal inheritance.

”I’m not pro-nuclear weapons,” she says, speaking from the sort of personal experience few people can claim. “I think they’re one of the worst mistakes ever made. But I also believe in democracy. In a democracy, every citizen shares an equal responsibility for every decision ever made.”

My trip through INEL’s desert site was a reckoning.

The desert near Idaho Falls has a long history of hot spots. As Yellowstone’s older cousin, it once bubbled up with lava and hot springs and sudden spurts of earth that became buttes and mountains (Craters of the Moon, the national monument where Apollo program astronauts practiced their lunar driving skills, is not far). Then the region cooled off and flattened out for a few thousand years until the Navy and the Air Force heated it up again when they turned 270 square miles into gunnery ranges, calibrating the guns of World War II against the uncomplaining sagebrush.

When the war was over, the Department of Energy went shopping for a parcel of land on which to keep testing the potential uses of nuclear technology. The land had to be vast, empty, close to water and far from human habitation, in case something went wrong. At the time, “Not In My Back Yard” was not yet the fat lady’s aria to big, polluting projects. Communities vied for the DOE site like Salt Lake City bribing its way to the Olympics. Idaho Falls’ boosters bribed best—that is, wined and dined the appropriate Washingtonians—and won the prize.

One of the site’s selling points was an aquifer the size of Lake Erie, which sits beneath the desert and would prove ideal for waste disposal, the 1950s still being the era of city sewers dumping directly into rivers and garbage barges unloading on the oceans. No one was arguing that nuclear waste should have special treatment. And so for 30 years, the DOE’s INEL site would suck up millions of gallons of water from the aquifer to cool off its nuclear reactors and inject the contaminated water back into the wells—the very aquifer Idaho’s farmers rely on to irrigate their fields and grow those potatoes that become biggie, crispy, yellow fries at fast-food restaurants. I’d always wondered if coloring was part of the secret.

Since 1949, the INEL site has been the Department of Energy’s ground zero of nuclear technology, producing 52 experimental nuclear reactors. It is one of 20 DOE labs in the country (brand-famous ones include Lawrence Livermore in California and Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, where the first atomic bomb was developed). In every case, DOE contracts out most of the work to universities or private industry, but it is all funded by tax dollars.

My guide is Don Miley, a 34-year-old company man, whatever the company DOE happens to be contracting with. His badge said “Lockheed” because it hadn’t yet been updated to “Bechtel,” the replacement contractor following Lockheed’s multimillion-dollar cat fight with DOE over the clean-up of a radioactive pit. Both Miley’s parents had retired from INEL. He was perfectly happy to raise his two young children downwind from the site, telling me that if he didn’t think it was safe he’d have been gone a long time ago. INEL might as well have been Disneyland, safe as an auntie’s back yard. But Miley was strictly by-the-book. Idling near a dump that’s still accepting nuclear trash, he forbade me from stepping outside the van to take pictures. It had nothing to do with contaminants. We just hadn’t secured the proper paperwork. A special application was required to actually set foot on the ground. I could take my pictures from the windows of the van and balance myself monkey-like all I wanted from its rims, as long as my boots didn’t come in contact with the ground. All day in that Disneyland of safety, Don Miley loved to point out boundaries.

Some 60 miles after leaving Idaho Falls, we first stop where it all began—a squarish, brick building as unremarkable as a big garage surrounded by a flimsy chainlink fence. The building has a name: EBR-1, to which INEL veterans refer as if it were an old buddy, long since retired. EBR stands for Experimental Breeder Reactor. Inside, four ordinary light bulbs hang on a string next to a turbine opposite a very thick concrete enclosure, where EBR-1 still sits. On Dec. 20, 1951, the reactor produced enough electricity to light the four bulbs, the first time nuclear energy was so harnessed. The next day, the whole building was lit up by the reactor. The small town of Arco at the edge of the INEL site also was powered by the reactor for a few hours late one night in an attempt to make an impression on the first nukes-for-peace conference in Geneva in the early 1950s. Geneva’s scientists were less impressed when they found out Arco’s size, and that at 2 a.m. the snoring burg’s few street lamps and night-lights could also have been powered by a home variety diesel generator.

Outside EBR-1’s building, two gigantic, bizarre engines that look like a flubbed experiment by Willie Wonka sit on an improvised pad, rusting. They’re the remaining monument to America’s attempt in the 1950s to build a nuclear plane. The Pentagon was very excited about its Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project. Rumor had convinced defense officials that the Soviets had their nuclear planes, so the United States had to have its own. Engineers couldn’t figure out how to make the engines small. It took John Kennedy’s presidential order in 1961 to put an end to what had been an expensive quest. The Soviets, needless to say, didn’t have a nuclear plane.

We leave history behind and drive to the Radioactive Waste Management Complex—an 88-acre nuclear dump. For all its contributions to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, INEL also was at the receiving end of radioactive waste generated by the country’s nuclear weapons factory in Rocky Flats, Colo., from 1954 to 1970. The Rocky Flats plant was a machine shop that produced bombs. The molds, tools, clothing, grease and whatever else the machine shop required for bomb production were all contaminated. Those things -- 65,000 cubic meters’ worth—were piled up in barrels and crates, sent to INEL, dubbed “transuranic waste” and dumped in pits. Transuranic means the stuff is contaminated by elements heavier than uranium, like plutonium and americium, which remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. No one thought anything of it at the time.

”We realize that some of those things were short-sighted,” says Brad Bugger, a DOE spokesman. “It’s costing us a lot of money to deal with some of those problems from that.” The annual storage and clean-up budget: $446 million. Based on a 1995 court-ordered settlement with the state of Idaho, INEL has until 2018 to ship the waste out of the state, and until 2035 to ship out tons of spent nuclear fuel stored in other areas. DOE has prepared a permanent dumping ground, 2,100 feet deep near Carlsbad, N.M., which has already been receiving shipments from INEL. (The Carlsbad dump, cutely referred to as WIPP, for Waste Isolation Pilot Plan, is often confused with the salt tunnels dug out 900 feet below Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which DOE wants to fill with spent fuel from the nation’s 109 civilian nuclear power plants. Nevada has yet to agree to the dumping. Meanwhile, the spent fuel remains in storage in concrete bins and deep pools at each of the plants around the country.) In the Radioactive Waste Management Complex, one acre in particular stands out as a parable of INEL’s problems. It starred in its own 15 minutes of television newsmagazine fame. It’s called Pit 9. It was filled with waste in the late 1960s. Unlike other pits, much of what’s buried there is a known quantity. DOE hired Lockheed Martin to clean it up in a test project. Lockheed had won the bid, promising to do the job for $179 million. After spending $54 million—and not moving an ounce of dirt—Lockheed told DOE it would need more money for the project. DOE refused. Lockheed walked out, suing DOE for the money. Bechtel is now in charge of the project. DOE and Lockheed are battling in court, and the dirt on top of Pit 9 is still undisturbed.

”That’s it in all of its glory, covered with crested wheatgrass,” Miley said as we idle by the pit. The next tuft of wheatgrass that will soon have its 15 minutes of fame is in the same complex. Not much bigger than Pit 9, the tract sits fenced in and untouched, giving the impression that it is the burial ground of a particularly lethal pile of trash. But it is, in fact, where DOE wants to build an incinerator in which to burn some of its radioactive trash that also is contaminated with PCBs (polluting chemical agents), and which New Mexico won’t accept. The idea that an incinerator would burn doubly toxic trash 90 miles away from Yellowstone National Park and the wealthy community of Jackson, Wyo., has rallied environmentalists in a furious battle against DOE, again landing the agency in court. The environmentalists’ legal team is led by Gerry Spence, the celebrity lawyer who lives in Jackson. A similar incinerator was planned at Lawrence Livermore a decade ago. Lawrence Livermore’s own scientists opposed it, and the idea died.

The INEL site is split into nine Waste Area Groups, or WAGs, each of which is a mini-lab of sorts. The Advanced Test Reactor area contains the last functioning nuclear reactor on the site. Most of the work there is done for the Navy, secretly. What’s not so secret is that research at INEL helped the Navy develop nuclear fuels and reactors that allow a nuclear submarine to spend its entire 25- to 30-year life at sea without a single refueling. The Nautilus, the Navy’s first nuclear sub (whose prototype was built at INEL), had to be refueled after every year at sea - and kept in dry dock for months every time.

”We’re trying to do the same thing for the commercial nuclear industry that we’ve done for the Navy,” says Jim Lake, INEL’s director of advanced nuclear programs and president-elect of the American Nuclear Society. Applied to civilian uses, the advance would help generating plants hugely improve their efficiency, make nuclear electricity cheaper, and slash the amount of nuclear waste they produce. One problem: The Navy won’t share the technology, citing “national security”—a glowing case of forfeiting a national benefit for a tired abstraction.

At yet another WAG, we enter building number 666 (no kidding) and walk along six successive pools 30 feet deep and containing 3 million gallons of clear, metallic-blue water that has been purified of the barest mineral (because radionuclides cling to mineral particles). The pool bottoms are lined with small vaults, as if we’d entered an excessively secure bank that had taken the precaution of submerging its clients’ individual safes. But behind each vault were the cooling rods of fuel that had once powered subs or aircraft carriers, radioactive enough to outlast the next few ice ages. The nuclear Navy shouldn’t be singled out: nuclear power plants generate far more waste that’ll be just as lethal through coming millennia—time enough for salt caves to become mountains, and for mountains to flatten into deserts, whatever they may contain.

It was at that moment that my skepticism about the promise of nuclear power returned. Nothing that requires so much protection, mostly because it is so little understood, can be such a good thing. It was less than 20 years ago that INEL scientists were still injecting the aquifer below with contaminated waste, unaware of their mistake. No one knows, in 20 or 30 years, the reasons why people will be shaking their heads in disbelief at the practices of nuclear scientists and environmental managers in 1999.

After driving for half an hour to the north edge of the site, we passed by a hangar that once had housed those two Willie Wonka nuclear aircraft engines. The hangar is now home to the secret manufacturing operation of the M1-Abrams tank armor, which is made of decayed uranium.

Not far from that compound was the least active part of the site these days: the repository of the molten core of the Three Mile Island reactor. Idaho wants it shipped out like the rest of the waste on the desert plain. But since its meltdown in 1979, the core has had a long and productive afterlife at INEL as the key to research into nuclear reactor safety. Two meltdowns have been simulated there to better analyze the accidents. Scientists like Jim Lake get giddy at the progress the research has allowed. To hear them speak, the nuclear age has barely begun. It only looks as if it’s in remission.





Total area: 83,574 sq. miles (rank: 14)

Population (1997): 1,210,232 (rank: 40)

State capital: Boise

Economy: Agriculture, manufacturing, timber

Nickname & Motto: Gem State; It is perpetual.

Entered union: July 13, 1890 (43 rd).

Notable facts: At its peak in 1990, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory’s budget of $1 billion was larger than the general fund budget of the state of Idaho. At the time INEL employed 10,962 people, or 2.5 percent of Idaho’s workforce of 406,000. The lab took Idaho Falls from village status to Idaho’s second city in the second half of the 20 th century. The end of the Cold War has cut INEL’s budget and its workforce back to $850 million and 8,200 employees. Two years ago INEL became INEEL, adding the word “Environmental” to its acronym in an effort to project a long, varied future for the lab. The second “E” hasn’t caught on, and despite its employees’ optimism, INEL’s future is as assured as that of military bases: its fate is up to Congress.

Idaho in quotes: “There is little doubt that (INEL) will be the forerunner of the greatest development Idaho has yet seen. It will bring thousands of people within the borders of the state, and may set the stage for a great industrial upsurge. The coming of this . . . enterprise presents a virile challenge to the leadership of this whole section of the state, and particularly Idaho Falls, to rise to its full stature, and prepare now to fit its economy into the changing conditions that are bound to come with the establishment of this nuclear reactor test station to this area. The second impact of the plant may prove of greater significance than the first. This is not a war installation. Instead it is a plant where experiments will be centered to harness atomic power for use in every day life.”—From an editorial in the Idaho Falls Post Register, May 19, 1947).



Ben J. Plastino, a long-time reporter and editor at the Idaho Falls Post Register, wrote “Coming of Age: Idaho Falls and the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory” (Book Crafters, Chelsea, Michigan) in the early 1990s. The 120-page book sums up the lab’s history through its peak in 1990. (The book is available at for $7.95).

Web Sites:

* Idaho National Engineering Laboratory:

* Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

* Department of Energy:

* Idaho tourism:


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