Saturday, May 19, 2007

Across Idaho and into Oregon

EBR-1 (Experimental Breeder Reactor-1), the World's first nuclear power plant is located in a remote corner of the vast Idaho National Laboratory high desert test center


8:30 a.m.  Smitty’s Pancake and Steak House, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Idaho Falls is wide awake at this hour. I've already been on the road for two hours. Rain was threatening throughout my passage from Montana to Idaho until I emerged to sunlight just north of here.

Earlier, I had stopped in Spencer, known for its opals. I was hoping to view samples at a shop or market, but at 7:30 there was no sign of life.

"The Plan" keeps changing. I was going to cut directly to the West Coast via U.S. 20 to Newport, Oregon, then down to Garberville for a look at the real estate market there. Now, given this strange weather, I’m inclined to follow the most direct route home.


I pulled up to the security office at the Idaho National Laboratory and met security guard Layne Bird. He was just a wealth of information. Almost uncomfortably talkative! ("Are you supposed to be telling me all this?")
East of Spencer, according to Layne, is the largest volcanic crater in World. The first nuclear disaster site (SL-1) is just east of here, apparently the result of a love triangle. To the north, the Navy tested 16” guns for the battleships New Jersey and Iowa. There is a nuclear sub out in this desert, used for training purposes. They develop nuclear engines for space probes here. The laboratory is connected with the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Savannah River sites. If they need help, Mountain Home Air Force Base is 7 minutes away by air and Hill AFB in Ogden is only 5 minutes away. This is where Verizon tests their communications equipment. There was formerly a large Navy contingent stationed at INL; there are far fewer now. People come and go at all hours of the day, 7 days a week. They hangered the "atomic bomber" out there in the desert. EBR-1, the nation's first nuclear reactor, is just down the road. Lower octane fuel burns hotter and gives better mileage than high octane. (They have 85-octane fuel available in Idaho. It's only available in a few places.) "Some" who work here are appalled by the incredible waste they see in government projects at the site. Projects are started but go nowhere. The first electric power plant in 30 years is under construction in Arizona. This location was considered by NASA as an alternate launch site to Cape Canaveral. The fact that it’s a mile high would save an enormous amount of fuel launching vehicles into space.

In danger of exceeding my hard drive capacity, I thanked Layne for the education and headed off to explore some of the locations he recommended. I couldn't help think of the World War II admonition "loose lips sink ships."

En route to EBR-1, I came upon Bechtel’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant (AMWTP)(Sounds impressive, doesn't it?). The sign outside the fenceline identified the operator as "Bechtel BWXT Idaho, LLC".

Out in the wide-open Idaho plains, and adjacent to the world's first nuclear power plant, Bechtel's AMWTP (Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant) processes nuclear waste. From Bechtel's website:

Bechtel is managing operations at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment project in Idaho Falls, Idaho. It is DOE’s most advanced waste treatment facility, where transuranic waste is safely treated and packaged for shipment and final disposal. (My emphasis added.)

Bechtel National is the lead partner in Bechtel BWXT Idaho, LLC, which operates the project, located at DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory.

Waste originally was sent to the Idaho site during the 1970s and 1980s from DOE’s Rocky Flats site near Denver, Colorado. It contains industrial debris such as rags, work clothing, machine parts and tools, as well as soil and sludge contaminated with transuranic radioactive elements, primarily plutonium. In addition to the radioactive contamination, most of the waste is also contaminated with hazardous chemicals.

The waste is stored in four-cubic-meter large boxes and 208-liter drums. It is retrieved and then characterized to determine the contents, using radiography, gamma spectrometry, coring, and headspace gas samples. The waste is then repackaged and shipped by truck to the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, for permanent disposal.

Using an aggressive project management approach, the Bechtel-led team is revamping operations at the AMWTP and aligning operations with court-mandated milestones contained in a 1995 settlement agreement between the state of Idaho, the U.S. Navy and DOE to remove the waste from Idaho.

It certainly sounds to me like "permanent storage" of radioactive waste is an ever-changing concept.

Sometimes I just feel like I'd rather not know what goes on out in the deserts of the American West. There is an automatic sense that any activity so isolated from public view must be nefarious.

The grounds adjacent to EBR-1 are a bit radioactive. You can take the tour at your own risk.

These structures are test stands holding prototype atomic engines, part of a 1950s project to build a nuclear-powered bomber. (Among the fascinating things you find exploring America's deserts.)

The atomic bomber story

After a break, during which I learned a bit about the world's first nuclear reactor, "Atoms for Peace" and the Nuclear Bomber Project (I guess that would be the complementary "Atoms for War" program), I continued on to the town of Arco, where in 1955, the residents were the first in the "free world" to enjoy the "peaceful application" of nuclear power. They just happened to be unaware of the fact.

According to Layne, the people of Arco, Idaho weren't even aware that in July of 1955 their electricity was suddenly coming from an experimental nuclear reactor only a few miles away

Crossed the fringes of the Craters of the Moon National Monument, a harsh, craggy and blackened landscape, the result of huge lava flows. I wasn't inspired enough today to pay the park entrance fees for a close-up self-guided tour.

Not far beyond, I came to the junction of state route 75 and signs for Sun Valley. I had no idea the famous ski area was along this route. Since I was here, I decided to have a look. Being a non-skier/snowboarder, the area holds little attraction for me. Ketchum is a typical resort town, catering to the comfortably affluent. At this time of year, it's busy, but apparently nothing like in the "high season".

A wonderful Spring day up here in the mountain valleys. Enough moisture in the air to offer a kinder, gentler environment than the brutal landscape through which I had just driven in. It showed in the smiles of tourists strolling the sidewalks.

I was drawn in by a Tully’s Coffee shop (owned by Starbucks). At a table outside, I briefly joined locals Dave, Bill and Ursula (and Bill and Ursula's gentle Golden Retriever). Looking at the surrounding mountains, I asked aloud, "so where is the skiing?" They pointed to the mountain on the west side of Ketchum. "Baldy is the mountain." It didn't strike me as anything special, but then what do I know?

I admit of experiencing a bit of envy for people who have done fairly well in their lives, and can now enjoy these later years owning property in such a beautiful and relaxing environment (and still have the ability to get away when things get a little too busy here.) They, in turn, expressed some admiration for my own freedom (short-lived though it may be.)

7:00 PM Machuco’s Mexican Restaurant, Ontario, Oregon

This establishment is well-hidden in the back corner of a strip mall. Authentic Mexican food (like many of those in the Roseland area of Santa Rosa.)

Dinner consisted of 3 pork tamales and a beer. Simple, good food and excellent salsa! TVs are often a prominent feature in Mexican restaurants. This one is no exception.

Leaving Ketchum earlier, I traveled highway 75 north toward the Sawtooth Range. Followed the "Sawtooth Scenic Byway" to Stanley, then turned west on highway 21. This is serious river sports country. Again, I had no idea. The highway runs along the cascading Big Piney and Deer Creeks down into the Payette River. From a few brave kayakers tempting death in the higher country, to abundant river rafting rides along the lower reaches, this is clearly a "sportsperson's paradise". It is obviously a huge economic boon to the region. At several points along the rivers, I stopped to watch the "traffic". People were obviously enjoying the exhilarating experience. (I don't think you could get me into the river. I would be terrified.)

Idaho's Sawtooth Range from Galena Pass

Another view of the Sawtooth Range

It was with mixed emotions that I watched. It is a pleasure to see people engage in activities that are so healthful and stimulating, that require teamwork and create a camaraderie and develop friendships. At the same time, I'm torn by all the specialty equipment, clothing and accessories, the large trucks and passenger vehicles, all the "stuff" required to deliver a "fun and exciting" experience. (And, for each season, we are "expected" to outfit ourselves for a diverse range of activities, each with its unique paraphernalia.)

I was painfully aware of this tendency as I "geared up" for the America's Trip. I even "over-geared". When I gathered all my purchases together, it was obvious there was far too much to carry on a motorcycle. I ended up returning hundreds of dollars' worth of "stuff". Crazy Americans!

The temperature ranged from very cool this morning to hot and sunny in Sun Valley, to "perfect" higher in the mountains, to hot again on the lower western slopes of the Sawtooth Range.

“This community supports our troops" and “Life; it’s a wonderful choice”. Signs featuring such statements dot the Midwest and Western landscape. Since most Americans likely feel this way, it might be more efficient to instead identify the dissidents ("This community hates our troops", "Abortion; it's a wonderful choice.") It would require far fewer signs, thus saving resources.

All across the country I’ve seen "poor" crows being attacked by two or more small birds, (like a lumbering World War II bomber being attacked by fighters.) Everywhere, it's the same drill. What are the crows up to that they draw such wrath?

No sales tax in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. How do they do it?

8:45 PM Camped in the Oregon high desert

Westward from Ontario, the road follows the Malheur River. At twilight, it's a very humid and "buggy" drive, resulting from extensive irrigation of fields.

As it grew dark, I began to scramble for a tent site. Everything is fenced out here (who builds all these fences?!) Followed a dirt road towards Warm Springs Reservoir Recreation Area and turned off when I felt sufficiently removed from the highway. Climbed a hillside into the chaparral to conceal my site, but panicked as I encountered rocks, holes and soft soil in the fading light. I was quickly winded trying to muscle this behemoth even a little bit (realizing later I’m up about 5,000 feet.) At length, I found a relatively flat piece of ground large enough to accommodate the tent. As I pitched the tent amidst the dense brush, I wondered "do they have cougars out here?"

But now everything's all right with the world – I’m safely and comfortably in my tent. It's a mild, breezy evening. In the western sky, Venus is less than a lunar diameter away from the moon.

Tomorrow I may continue on U.S. 20 to the coast, or turn south on U.S. 395. We’ll see how the weather looks.

Now for (too) personal observations. Riding a motorcycle often results in a sore or numb "butt". It raises concern whether riding so much contributes to testicular or prostrate cancer. Boy, do I need a shower! The last one was in Moline, Illinois!

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