The 55-gallon waste barrel broke Wednesday at the Idaho National Laboratory, an 890-square-mile testing facility that is one of the US' top nuclear research labs.
— Energy Department (@ENERGY) April 13, 2018
The fire alarm went off and when firefighters arrived, they extinguished the barrel, which was reportedly smoldering, and were able to pull it from the other waste barrels. Emergency workers detected trace amounts of radioactive material on their skin, according to US Department of Energy Spokeswoman Danielle Miller.
Workers at the site must wear full protective clothing at all times. Fortunately, preliminary assessments show that the firefighters were not injured and did not inhale the radioactive materials. They were able to wash it off and were taken to a medical facility as a precaution.
Authorities are now theorizing explanations for the rupture, saying that it's the first known rupture of a radioactive sludge barrel. One theory for the fire is that radioactive decay heated the barrel and ignited uranium particles. The rub is that it could happen again and it's hard to tell how to prevent it because they don't exactly know what's inside it.
Record keeping on the content of the barrels is abysmal. During the Cold War, officials intentionally obscured such information, presuming that if the US' enemies knew the contents of the nuclear waste barrels, they could infer too much about the production process.
About all we know is that the ruptured barrel contained a mixture of fluids and solvents from nuclear weapons production at the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, Colorado, according to Idaho National Laboratory Joint Information Center spokesperson Don Miley.
Officials are now conducting an investigation to determine whether any of the other barrels being stored are at risk. The one that ruptured was among an unknown number of other barrels in a 380-by-165 foot room with dirt floors. The ruptured barrel was transferred to a containment structure and will eventually get shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
The Idaho National Laboratory is a nuclear power facility managed by the US Department of Energy in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where many groundbreaking research projects were performed, including the first nuclear reactor to provide electricity for public use as well as the construction of the prototype reactor for the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. However, it was also the site of the only fatal nuclear accident in US history on January 3, 1961, when a control rod was pulled too far out of an experimental nuclear reactor, leading to core meltdown and a steam explosion that killed 3 men. The men's bodies were so radioactive that they were buried in lead coffins.