Could the Idaho research reactor be a target for terrorists?
A federal judge in Casper, WY, has agreed with the claims of a Jackson Hole, WY, environmental group and ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to turn over a Safety Analysis Report (SAR) for the Advanced Test Reactor for judicial review. The judge also asked the government to provide a technical expert to help him evaluate the document.
A Safety Analysis Report, or SAR, is a massive technical document which addresses a very long list of required "safety questions" about the reactor. You can't run a research reactor for the government without completing one and getting it through an arduous review process for approval.
This is a significant development since SARs usually are used internally to guide reactor operations and insure all the required safety measures are documented and translated into day-to-day procedures. Previous SARs for ATR are online. See one example here. The environmental group has taken a deep dive into the world of reactor operations. Here are some reasons why.
Legacy of Government decision making
Back in the late 1970s the Washington Post reported that a proposed geothermal project in Island Park, Idaho, might pull the plug on the 'Old Faithful' geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The hot water that would be mined by the project, which was located 50 miles west of the Old Faithful area, was said to be connected to it underground though no geological evidence, other than assumptions, was ever presented by the government or the newspaper's reporter.
Environmental groups and the public were outraged and the drilling phase of the project never started. For its part the Forest Service issued a glossy, full-color environmental impact statement which forever sealed the fate of the endeavor consigning it to the dustbin of politically dumb ideas.
A year or two later former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus was appointed Secretary of the Interior by then President Jimmy Carter. Andrus, who until then, had been satisfied with the restaurant fare offered in provincial Boise, ID, became enthralled with the dining options available in the nation's capital. He began frequenting one DC's finest located within walking distance of the Interior Dept.'s New Deal-era office building.
Now what's important about this part of the story is that Andrus' authority extended to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The agency's mission includes protecting endangered species. One day after Andrus had lunched on an exotic species of game, an anonymous tip to the Endangered Species office prompted an inspection by the agency of the lunch menu at the restaurant where late their boss, the Secretary of the Interior had recently dined.
Horrified to discover that Sec. Andrus was literally eating away at the future of a nearly extinct species, a hapless Fish & Wildlife Service biologist, grade GS-11, wrote a letter to the restaurant explaining their supplier was breaking the law and that the eatery should cease & desist from serving the dish to one and all. The next time Sec. Andrus returned to have lunch, the chef showed Andrus the letter. Andrus, instead of being relieved that he had been spared the embarrassment of blamelessly eating a bird he was supposed to protect, managed to turn the affair into a full-blown Washington media circus.
He returned to the Interior Dept.'s massive offices on E. St., NW, puffed up with rage like a sage grouse in heat. He summarily fired the biologist for "exceeding his authority" and believed at that point he'd asserted his right to eat any game species of his choosing at lunch undisturbed by pesky bureaucrats.
Sadly, Mr. Andrus learned another lesson about Washington, and that is that civil service employees wrongly fired from their jobs often have friends who will cheerfully, and without thought of renumeration, take the case to the press to seek redress. That's exactly what happened and after the ensuring uproar Andrus was forced to take back his termination order and re-hire the biologist. It is said on good authority that the next time Andrus dined at the exotic eatery his menu item of choice for lunch that day was crow.
Update to the Present
Now in late September 2007 some 30 years later comes the Jackson Hole, WY, environmental group, puffed up with money from movie stars, which claims a research nuclear reactor 150 miles to the west on the Arco desert in Idaho is a threat to Yellowstone National Park. The group has successfully placed the matter before a federal judge in Casper, WY, who will now review reactor safety documents from the federal government. The judge will decide whether the documents can be seen by the environmental group.
SARs do sometimes contain information about a reactor which could be interpreted as relating to the security of the facility. As a practical matter, the location of the reactor pretty much answers the security question. The Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) is located on the open range 50 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID, inside the boundary of a federal facility patrolled by armed guards and a multitude of other security measures. Employees working at the reactor are subject to background checks. Unless an airborne brigade of heavily armed terrorists plan to parachute on to the Arco desert, the reactor is pretty damn secure from outside assault.
The litigation is a clear outcome of the legacy of bipartisan stubbornness over environmental decision making which dates back decades to the types of events noted above. Leaving aside the current cast of players in this dispute, there is no question that acrimony and distrust are likely some of the common factors on both sides which prevent open dialog about the nuclear future of the country. This case is also about the threat of terrorism and the boundaries of how open government will be in the face of these threats. The judge will have to decide the merits of the case.
Here are some highlights from the wire service coverage of the case.
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Judge William Downes, of Casper, this week ordered the DOE to provide an expert to help him review safety documents concerning the Advanced Test Reactor in Idaho. After the judge reviews them, he will determine whether to turn them over to the groups that requested them.
The Energy Department last year launched a 10-year, $200 million program to extend the life of the 250-megawatt reactor to 2040. The decision followed a proposal to consolidate U.S. production of plutonium-238 for NASA and national security agencies. The plutonium will be used to make on-board power plants for deep space probes used by NASA. The isotope is not used in nuclear weapons.
The DOE has released some documents to the environmental groups in response to their records request and lawsuit in Wyoming. DOE refused to release safety assessments of the reactor on security grounds.
"The easiest way to determine how to damage a reactor is to look at the safety envelope and accident analysis for the reactor, and then to determine the best way to bypass or defeat the engineered safeguards that can cause a small accident, and to make that small accident bigger," federal lawyers have stated in court papers. "In other words, the (report), due to its safety analysis, contains everything a terrorist needs."
In his ruling, Downes stated that he takes the threat of terrorism seriously.
"On Sept. 11, 2001, much to our horror, this nation observed firsthand the very real possibility that our own engineering and technological achievements could be turned against us and used as weapons of mass destruction. The court has no doubt that the threat of a terrorist attack aimed at this nation's nuclear facilities is a real one."
Downes also noted that blocking public access to information necessary to assess the safety of the reactor, "runs the risk that government decisions to extend the life of the (reactor) will go unchecked, with the possibility of a devastating nuclear accident 100-miles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, crown jewels of this country's national parks."
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These kinds of open records disputes come up all the time, and not just over nuclear reactors. What makes this case special is the high profile of the national parks. It isn't the first time their brand name has been brought into court, like the Island Park geothermal case, and it isn't likely to be the last.
Here's one other question. The judge asked DOE for a technical expert to help him evaluate the SAR. Is Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free (KYNF) going to just take his word for it if he agrees with the government or will they want to read it too? It take a lot of nuclear engineering know-how to prepare or review one. My suggestion is that KYNF place a display ad now for the right expertise. It is one thing to ask read a SAR while you solicit movie stars for big checks to support your cause. It is an entirely different matter to actually read one.
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