Amy Joi O'Donoghue
A remote highway skirts the boundary of the Idaho National Laboratory west of Idaho Falls. Decades of nuclear energy activity in Idaho and around the country created a contamination and cleanup problem that led to the Idaho National Laboratory being designated a Superfund site.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — A legacy of contamination from decades of operation led to a Superfund designation at the Idaho National Laboratory by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1989.

Now, even the milk of cows and goats nearby gets tested regularly for the presence of radioiodine, which can increase the risk of thyroid cancer in people.

Even though the animals are off-site of the 890-square-mile laboratory, the chemical nature of iodine makes it mobile under certain conditions, so it can be carried on the wind and deposited on livestock forage.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality collected 45 samples of milk from distribution centers and individual dairies in 2017, and did a split sample of testing with the U.S. Department of Energy to verify the efficacy of the results.

All came back no detect, according to the agency's annual report.

The agency has 10 air monitoring stations, took 126 atmospheric samples last year and does soil testing and monitoring for radiation penetration using both high pressure ion chambers with real-time testing and passive chambers as well.

More than 60 samples of groundwater, surface water and wastewater were tested in 2017, both within the laboratory boundaries and downstream.

As the result of a lawsuit Idaho filed against the U.S. Department of Energy and the Navy, a 1995 settlement agreement establishes requirements and deadlines for the volumes of radioactive waste at INL. There are 306 metric tons of spent fuel alone.

Specifically, the agreement calls for disposal of 84,799 cubic meters of transuranic waste — waste contaminated with artificial radioactive elements — in the deep geologic repository in the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico.

Natalie Creed, the state's hazardous waste unit manager, said the deadline of the waste's removal by the end of 2018 won't be met because of problems at the New Mexico Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

"Some of the requirements they are on track to meet and are doing well, and some they are behind on, which is a challenge. The state of Idaho has been very clear that those things are a priority for us," she said.

The agreement also calls for the U.S. Department of Energy to treat all high-level waste at the laboratory in preparation for disposal elsewhere by 2035.

Idaho has an intense working relationship with the laboratory in the oversight of contamination, waste and emergency preparedness and response.

The state conducted at least four emergency drills last year and has an agency representative who is a liaison for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

All of this work, Creed said, is part of the ongoing effort to address the contamination of the Snake River Plain Aquifer and to prevent future problems.

"We want to protect the aquifer and prevent waste from migrating to it," she said.

The aquifer, added Beatrice Brailsford, is the sole source of drinking water for 300,000 Idaho residents and contains twice as much water as Lake Eerie.

"Cleanup has been going on quite vigorously for more than a decade. The biggest threats to the aquifer is the plutonium waste buried in unlined pits," she said.

Brailsford is the nuclear program manager for the Snake River Alliance, a watchdog organization founded in 1979.

"The contamination at the Snake River Plain Aquifer has been accidental, intentional and sometimes inadvertent," she said.

The alliance runs the Don't Waste Idaho campaign and is fighting the possible importation of 33,600 barrels of nuclear waste from Hanford, Washington, that could begin arriving at the Idaho National Laboratory next year.

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It has also came out against the Carbon Free project by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems that would put a small modular nuclear reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory to power some Utah cities in the future.

The alliance keeps close tabs on incidents at the Idaho National Laboratory, including the April rupture of a barrel of radioactive sludge. The rupture resulted in three firefighters receiving medical treatment for radioactive contamination.

Brailsford said the cleanup of contamination associated with the laboratory will take decades and cost billions.