© Rocky Barker 1996 First ran April 29, 1996
For nearly a decade, Chuck Broscious has tenaciously pressed for the declassification of
documents relating to radiation releases from the INEL.
Last week, Broscious, director of the Troy-Idaho-based Environmental Defense Institute,
finally got his wish. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary ordered her chief of staff, former anti-
nuclear activist Dan Reicher to oversee a mass declassification of documents relating to 50
years of nuclear operations at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
Broscious finally won making the good case that the Centers for Disease Control's study of
radiation exposure at the INEL, won't have any scientific credibility if its results can't be
replicated by researchers without access to classified materials. The study, which won't be
completed for four to six years, is designed to definitively determine the extent and level of
radiation exposures to the public from the INEL.
Most of the INEL's major radiation releases are well known today. Millions of curies of
radioactive materials were sent into the atmosphere in the 1950s and 60s from projects like
the nuclear jet engine and the space reactor at Test Area North and from the Idaho Chemical
Most were gases that quickly dissipated and lost their radioactivity. The most dangerous
radioactive byproduct released was iodine 131, which with a half life of eight days, can stay
around long enough to be taken into the body, causing thyroid cancer among other things.
Iodine 131 is the major killer of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Fortunately, relatively low
levels of iodine were released from most of the operations at the INEL.
The worst came from the RaLa nuclear reprocessing program at the Chem Plant.
The total of 2,800 curies from RaLa compares with the 500,000 curies leaked during
operations at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the millions of curies released from
Chernobyl. Department of Energy officials have repeatedly assured Idahoans there never
were any health effects from RaLa or any of the other operations.
Broscious simply doesn't believe them. He is convinced that far more releases will be
revealed when the records are opened.
John Horan, who was the health and safety director for the Atomic Energy Commission
during those days is just as convinced there are no deep dark secrets. My guess is careless
construction supervision will turn out to be responsible for more deaths in and around the
INEL than radiation. Farm accidents have certainly killed more people in eastern Idaho
during the last 50 years.
However, the declassification ought to allow us a much richer understanding of the INEL
and its role in nuclear development. The RaLa project is a good example.
RaLa stands for radioactive lanthanum, which is produced when barium 140 undergoes
radioactive decay. Barium 140 was recovered in the Chem Plant from 1957 to 1963 by
reprocessing spent fuel as soon as it was removed from a reactor. Usually, workers waited
120 days to reprocess fuel so the short-lived radioactive byproducts would decay away and
make it less radioactive.
But barium 140 has a half life of only 13 days so the fuel had to be processed "green," right
away. That's why there was so much iodine released.
When Kevin Richert and I first reported on RaLa in 1989 we only knew it was produced for
a secret military research project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
Declassified documents I found in the INEL Technical Library showed the RaLa project had
started in 1945 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee but was moved to the INEL
in 1953 because of the inordinately high iodine releases.
I didn't learn what RaLa's lanthanum was used for until I read Richard Rhode's Pulitzer-Prize
winning book, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." He learned that the lanthanum, an intense
source of gamma radiation, was incorporated into test cores of the "Fat Man" plutonium
bomb, to monitor the precise implosion caused by conventional explosives in the device.
Imagine the importance of timing in the entire operation. The fuel was removed from the
Materials Test Reactor, dissolved in acid, the barium extracted and then shipped to Los
Alamos for use in tests, all within the short period before its decay.
The brilliant INEL chemists who developed the improved process for obtaining lanthanum
didn't know its use. They did learn to cut the process's release of iodine by a factor of 100
before the Atomic Energy Commission decided it no longer needed barium 140.
Broscious started his declassification campaign when the INEL was still attempting to build
new nuclear weapons plants. He like many nuclear weapons opponents hoped that more
knowledge of the INEL's past would prevent further nuclear development in the future.
Maybe they succeeded since there is little nuclear development in the INEL future today. But
their efforts to open the records may help all of us recognize the fascinating role the site plays