January 13 brought bad news about Governor Otter and Attorney General Wasden’s plans to grant the Department of Energy a “waiver” to ship more nuclear waste to Idaho, despite DOE’s existing violations of the 1995 Settlement Agreement that mandate clean up. As we warned on January 15, Governor Otter’s willingness to grant this waiver indicates that more waivers will follow and the critical protections Idaho established in the settlement agreement will be rendered meaningless.
The 1995 Settlement Agreement gives the State of Idaho the right to block any and all spent nuclear fuel shipments from the Department of Energy if DOE fails to meet the commitments it agreed to in the settlement. The Settlement Agreement, which Governor Batt called the People’s Agreement, is Idaho’s strongest shield against becoming a nuclear waste dump. That shield must never be lowered.
Even the Governor and Attorney General acknowledged that “Idaho’s 1995 Settlement Agreement is unique in the nation” because it gives the State a strong hand in ensuring cleanup deadlines are met and protecting Idaho from further nuclear waste importation, most notably commercial spent fuel. But on January 8, the Governor and Attorney General told the Department of Energy they will not exercise that right. Despite the DOE’s failure to meet significant Settlement Agreement milestones to protect Idaho’s water, they will acquiesce to DOE’s request to ship commercial spent nuclear fuel to Idaho this summer and again in early 2016.
Right now the DOE is out of compliance with the Agreement. Shipments of spent fuel are blocked from entering Idaho because the DOE has thus far failed to remove and treat sodium-bearing high-level waste from tanks buried above the Snake River Aquifer. In addition, the DOE will soon fall behind its enforceable schedule for removing plutonium-contaminated waste from the state. It is remarkably imprudent to set aside the State’s primary tool to force compliance right when it’s needed most. The schedule slippage for shipping out plutonium- contaminated waste is due to the shutdown of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. At a meeting in New Mexico yesterday, the DOE admitted that its plan to reopen the repository is already months behind schedule. Idaho letting in more spent fuel is not going to speed the reopening of WIPP by a single day.
Furthermore, INL’s failure to deal with its liquid high-level waste reflects both how difficult that waste stream is to manage and the DOE’s propensity to build first-of-a-kind, one-of-a-kind nuclear facilities. But it appears the treatment facility might begin operating in the next several months and can finish removing the waste from the buried tanks in the next couple of years. So why did the Governor and Attorney General yield to the DOE’s argument that Idaho had to signal preemptive surrender by high noon on January 9? The DOE itself admits that if it hadn’t gotten the nod this month, it could ask again in two years. The noncompliance issues at the treatment facility could have been resolved by DOE compliance instead of Idaho surrender.