A hostile and unwavering crowd clashed with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy at the Sun Valley Inn Wednesday night, turning the DOE's first public hearing regarding the proposed production of plutonium-238 at the Idaho National Laboratory into a verbal slugfest.
About 200 people packed into the Inn's Continental Room, with the overwhelming majority expressing their disapproval of the project, and intent to fight it to the end.
The DOE is proposing to produce 330 pounds of Pu-238 at the eastern Idaho site over the next 30 years, with production beginning as early as 2012.
Of the 32 citizens and special-interest groups who spoke at the three-hour hearing, only two expressed support for the project.
Pu-238 has been labeled a "non-weapons grade," form of plutonium by the federal government, although DOE officials admitted it could be used to make a "dirty bomb." It is so toxic that inhaling a microscopic amount can cause lung cancer. It is more than 200 times more radioactive than Pu 239, which is used in nuclear weapons.
The hearing was the first of six to be held in Idaho and Wyoming over the next week.
In order for the project to even be considered for approval, a draft Environmental Impact Statement must be completed by the DOE. Public feedback is just one component of an EIS. Other factors include environmental, cultural and wildlife impacts, as well as public safety. The Secretary of Energy—responsible for approving or derailing the project—will make a decision after weighing the results of the EIS along with the U.S. government's demand for Pu-238. The material would be used for NASA missions and national security purposes.
The DOE claims Pu-238 would provide long-lasting electrical power on crafts exploring deep space. While the government states that it will not be used for military purposes, the national security uses remain classified.
There have been whispers in the past that the INL may some day be used as a launch pad for satellites and other spacecraft, and that approving this project would help pave the way for such an endeavor. But Brad Bugger, head of DOE Idaho public relations, denied any such plan.
The hearing Wednesday night began with an introductory presentation from Tim Frazier, head of radioisotope power systems for DOE. Several people immediately stated that they could not understand some of the technical data presented, and wanted clarifications and answers to questions before moving ahead. When moderator Jim Parham began shouting at people to "shut up," the hearing quickly spiraled out of control.
For the next 45 minutes, Frazier was constantly challenged by the audience to be "honest" and provide "real" answers. A confrontation broke out among audience members after nuclear physicist and Sun Valley resident Martin Huebner told the crowd to be quiet.
"I came here to listen to (the DOE), not you," he shouted.
When the majority of the public shot back at Heubner, telling him to be quiet, he responded with a wave of his middle finger.
In his presentation, Frazier discussed the health risks of Pu-238, claiming that the new $300 million facility would be as safe as possible. Addressing concerns about the material naturally leaking into the atmosphere or groundwater, Frazier said the toxicity would actually be low. Smoking one cigarette a day for a year would be dramatically more toxic than living adjacent to the site, he said. As for an accident at the facility, Pu-238 "is not expected to cause any radiological risks from credible accidents," according to the EIS.
The public, with a couple exceptions, felt the presentation was a lie.
"Give me a break," said Richard Gouley, of Bellevue. "You've really insulted my intelligence with your graphs and inability to answer my questions. But coming to us under the current administration, I don't expect anything but lies from you."
Robert Farnsworth, who did not name his hometown, addressed Frazier directly and told him "people that say plutonium is less dangerous than smoking a cigarette need to spend some time in jail."
Hailey resident Brian Ross spoke about accidents at similar sites, like the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
"Accidents happen all the time, you guys know this," he said. "Plutonium-238 has killed and will continue to kill."
Margaret Macdonald Stewart, a former member of the nuclear watchdog group Snake River Alliance, called the proposal "dangerous and dumb."
"I'm very concerned about your cavalier attitude," she said. Stewart also held up paint cans and buckets, both of which she said were used to "clean" up the site in the past.
One speaker after another addressed the DOE, with all of their comments going on record in the draft EIS. They expressed not only their disapproval of the project, but outrage that they were being told it would be safe.
"If it's safe, and it's not going to affect us, can't we put (the facility) somewhere else, like Washington, D.C.?" asked one unidentified member of the public, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.
Kathryn Goldman, project coordinator for the Hailey-based Wood River Land Trust, wondered why a potential terrorist attack was not addressed in the EIS, especially when we are in the midst of a war on terror.
"This is extremely frightening to me," she said.
Others spoke of natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes, which could cause catastrophic damage to the facility, potentially releasing a widespread leak. In 1983, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked eastern Idaho. It was the strongest earthquake in the continental United States in 25 years.
Yellowstone National Park, which is located less than 200 miles to the east, is considered by some scientists to be a super volcano that could erupt at any time. In June of this year, 130 minor earthquakes were recorded in the Yellowstone area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Huebner, the nuclear physicist, addressed the DOE and members of the public from the microphone, telling them that nuclear energy could be safe. He said he's a "hard-core" environmentalist and he, like thousands of other scientists, believes nuclear energy is much safer than the public believes.
His speech was drowned out by boos from the audience.
Mickey McMillian, a former INL employee, said he was concerned about the impact Pu-238 may have on the environment. But he also sees the project as a potential opportunity.
"(The DOE) is going to do this, whether it's here or somewhere else," he said. "And if they're going to do it, we need to make sure there will be no accidents and no problems.
"We need to focus on what will be best for Idaho."
McMillian added that the project would also create new jobs for Idahoans.
"It could be good for the future," he said. "We've got to find a good balance."