January 14, 2008

The Year of the Potato

The United Nations has declared 2008 The Year of the Potato.

Let's see... Do I have a potato story?

Of course I do.

From Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America:

At the Big Lost River rest area in Idaho’s high desert, Department of Energy placards outside the bathrooms tried to make us believe that this sagebrush expanse, realm of Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), a totally nuclear world, was also a wildlife preserve. Thank goodness for this wilderness where scientists could study bobcats, coyotes and pronghorn.

We were primed for something to spice up this long, dry ride, and here it was. “Ahhh, yes, one of our favorite stops on the whole trip was the INEEL wildlife preserve!” We joked that any wildlife studies, whose existence we doubted, wouldn’t be about pronghorn per se, but about how many extra horns pronghorn grew after living in this nuclear wasteland.

Two suspicious men in the rest area parking lot heightened the fun and intrigue. They were traveling separately, in nondescript sedans, and stared at us from behind sunglasses. They read the exhibit information as if they were interested, trying to act like tourists. They didn’t fool us. They weren’t here to stretch their legs or learn about bobcats. We pegged them as FBI or CIA, protecting eastern Idaho’s reactors and nuclear detritus from terrorists, or keeping an eye on activists and celebrity landowners who objected to INEEL’s plan to burn waste contaminated with plutonium.

On top, the land looked dead, dry, innocuous. Below was a honeycomb of stuff we just wanted to drive over and get away from. INEEL stores high-level nuclear waste. Spent naval and nuclear reactor fuel. Surplus plutonium. We imagined what was going on in tunnels under us. We hummed the “doo-DOO-doo-DOO” theme from “The Twilight Zone.”

Radar apparatus, satellite towers and huge communication systems festooned the tops of buttes. No ranches, livestock or towns. Yellow school buses plied dirt roads that shot off the highway. They brought workers to sites like Argonne West. There were scores of reactors out there in the desert, about 50 over a 900-square mile expanse.

We turned up the driveway of EBR-1 -- World’s First Nuclear Power Plant and National Historic Landmark, Open Daily from 9-5, Free to the Public. Adam wanted to tour it, but was voted down three to one. The rest of us found it eerie, looming there at the end of the access road. And nobody was out here but us (and the G-men), making it even creepier.

I made a mental note to try never to get a potato that had spent time in one of the steel Quonset huts or long triangular barns of sod and dirt that lined the highway just east of INEEL. “Hot potatoes,” one of us jeered. Hard to drive through this nuclear desert and then order some fries or a nice big baked with your entrĂ©e. I developed temporary potatophobia in eastern Idaho, one of the planet’s several potato capitals.