The secrect of Rala

© Rocky Barker 1996 First ran April 29, 1996

Records reveal more than ghosts from INEL's past

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

Processing Plant.

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

history

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

in history.