The Hazardous Drive to the Grand Tetons
What better summer vacation destination can there be than Grand Teton National Park? I’ve seen the Teton’s several times and the sharp-tipped peaks always leave me as dumbstruck as the French fur trappers who first set eyes on them and gave them their name. Though as you might expect, women’s breasts (“les grande tetons”) never comes to mind as I gaze at the jagged mountaintops.
But life is a journey and not a destination, so what I want to talk about is the trip to the Tetons, and more specifically, driving along the 890 square mile site of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL, formerly known as INEL). Every time I cross that stretch of US 20 lining the INL reservation I do these searching behaviors looking for a Geiger counter. Really the landscape does nothing to soothe my nerves. The desolate INL reservation is a flat plane of sand, rocks, and desert grasses interrupted here and there by a sprinkling of tall buttes. With a stretch of the imagination I can easily see those buttes as alien landing pads.
It doesn’t help that as we drive along, I’m keenly aware the Snake River aquifer lies several feet beneath us and above that in a much shallower grave, radioactive waste stored from Colorado’s Rocky Flats nuclear facility. The amount of waste sent from Colorado to Idaho, suspiciously, was never fully documented. In fact, this past spring, April 2018, an old 55 gallon barrel of nuclear sludge from Rocky Flats, ruptured. It’s true, contamination is a concern at INL. I’ve read there’s been efforts to clean the facility up and develop ways to safely recycle spent nuclear fuel rather than store it. But could radioactive waste ever trickle down to Idaho’s precious aquifer? That’s a question.
If I sound like one of those anti-nuclear nuts, the ones that believe we can power our collective air conditioners with windmills despite the Saharan heat of Idaho’s summer—you’re partially right. I do support alternative energy sources and I’ve vainly hoped for nonradioactive cold fusion to become a reality. But I’m a pragmatist. Nuclear power generates huge amounts of energy with no carbon footprint. Still, any nuclear facility or laboratory needs to be carefully managed, and in the case of our Teton vacation, cautiously driven past.
Once we finally left Idaho’s version of Roswell, New Mexico, I was surprised to see at the INL boundary, cultivated ground and beyond that in the distance, clouds. The Grand Tetons were hiding, as they are wont to do in inclement weather. It occurred to me that these two sites of interest, the INL and the Teton Mountains, have something in common: one’s a source of man-made power, and the other’s evidence of great geologic power. They’re both awe-inspiring in their own way, but in the increasing clash between man and nature I have to wonder which of these forces will prevail?