The Idaho National Laboratory fashioned itself for years as a the nation’s manifestation of the peaceful atom. It’s first and second generation of workers prided themselves on its civilian research role, believing its myth that it was not involved in the research or production of nuclear weapons.
From the moment it began storing radioactive waste from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado it became a part of the nuclear weapons production system developed by the United States to create thousands of the most fearful machines ever developed.
This Cold War creation spawned a secrecy that still challenges our democracy today. Cory Taule, a reporter with the Idaho Falls Post Register, encountered this still intact system as he reported Sunday on a 1958 nuclear accident at the INL and the effort of one of the workers, Don Hill, to learn how badly he was exposed to radioactive iodine.
Hill, in many ways was one of the heroes of the accident. He closed a valve to stop radioactive nuclear waste from going into a storage tank where it was releasing radioactive 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 INL.
Hill’s reward was a loss of retirement benefits when he left the job and a sort of blacklisting when he tried for future government nuclear jobs, Taule reported.
But the worst was the federal government decided to destroy his and other workers involved in the accident’s medical records. Even Sen. Larry Craig, before his current lowered status, could pry the whole story from the Department of Energy.
The reason is the accident occurred on a super secret project called, RaLa. 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 nuclear 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. was so much iodine released.
When current Idaho Statesman editorial editor 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 ishowed the RaLa project had started in 1945 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee but was moved to the INL in 1953 because of the inordinately high iodine releases near people.
The INL’s isolated location in the Idaho desert made it the perfect place to do work that would release radioactive material. 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.
The fuel was removed from the INL’s 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 INL chemists who developed the improved process for obtaining lanthanum and workers like Hill 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.
This production went right into the production of atomic bombs into the late 1950s. Of course the uranium that was recycled from the chemical processing plant at the INL was used in reactors that made plutonium for bombs into the 1990s.
But when I arrived at the INL in 1985 the nuclear workers there would say with a straight face that only peace civilian nuclear research took place there… along with the Navy’s reactor program.
When the INL tried to get new reactors to produce plutonium for bombs and a plutonium factory in the late 1980s, DOE leaders tried to minimize the change in mission by acknowledging all of the past weapons work.
But Taule’s story about Don Hill shows the shroud of secrecy still hangs over the INL just as it does at other past nuclear weapons facilities. It’s the same story for downwinders still seeking justice for radiation exposure from bomb tests.
Unfortunately, I can’t link you to Taule’s story because the Post Register requires subscription. That will likely prevent the mass distribution this story deserves.