Thursday, July 3, 2008

Unanswered Questions

Our state and local media have given much trumpet to the agreement announced July 1 between the Department of Energy and the state regarding cleanup of waste at the Idaho National Laboratory (where I work). The reports – and the information provided to reporters – however, leaves some questions unanswered.

I’ve been trying to figure things out for the past few days. What I write here has the potential to be totally wrong, so do not take this as gospel. Also, don’t look here for background information, as that is available elsewhere, including at, so it won’t be repeated here.

As near as I can figure out, the agreement goes above and beyond the department’s preferred cleanup alternative, which would have called for 4.8 acres of buried waste to be dug up, sorted, repackaged and then shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. The agreement announced July 1 identifies 5.7 to 7.4 acres of waste that will be removed from the state. The waste of concern is waste (ranging from sludges to contaminated filters, tools, clothing and dirt) contaminated with plutonium and other transuranic elements, plus organic compounds, primarily carbon tetrachloride, buried at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex here in Idaho since the early 1950s. There has been some local whining that simply repackaging and storing this waste elsewhere just adds “our problem” to someone else’s back yard. They would be well advised to consider that most of the waste in question was generated at the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado, outside Denver, so this is not all necessarily locally-produced waste.

The agreement appears to be a compromise between DOE’s preferred alternative and Judge Edward Lodge’s “all means all” ruling in 2006, and will extend cleanup activities at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex well past the 2018 end date DOE identifies in its preferred alternative (more information on that alternative is available at the website I indicate above). The press materials mention the Lodge ruling, but seem to skirt the “all means all” language which brought this litigation in the first place. Call that semantics, I guess. Given that those were key words throughout this process, however, you’d think they’d want to mention them as a landmark when this agreement was reached.

What is not being said or reported at this point (and to be fair, I have not read the Post Register’s reports on the matter; they may well have reported these things, but as I don’t subscribe, I can’t say for myself) is what this will specifically do to timelines for cleanup, nor what costs will be incurred. DOE’s preferred alternative, for example, called for waste exhumation and repackaging to go on through 2018, with the remaining waste topped by a cap by 2027. Digging up more waste will obviously cost more in time and money. Former Gov. Cecil Andrus touched on this at the press conference, addressing the state’s Congressional delegation when he asked that funds be made available for the cleanup, but, again, no timelines were discussed.

Getting a better feel for the costs and timing – and how they could impact ongoing layoffs at the cleanup project – could go a long way in increasing worker morale here and stemming the flow of workers who are leaving the project for other jobs before the proverbial axe falls.

Speaking of rats leaving the ship, I have an interview for a third job on Tuesday, this time with the Information Technology Department at Utah State University. Of the three jobs I've interviewed for in the past few weeks, this'll be lowest on my wish list, as they pay is marginal. But it does feel good to think that I'm at least making the cut on these jobs. Or at least the first cut. I'd written this one off, because I'd applied for it waaaay back in May, then had to re-apply for it becasue the position had turned up as "withdrawn," then re-posted,when I checked in early June. So to hear from them this week was a surprise. We'll see what comes of it.

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