By Beatrice Brailsford
Idahoans’ resistance to accumulating nuclear waste above the Snake River Aquifer began in earnest in the 1960s. Challenges came from individuals and political leaders, heads of corporations and grassroots activists. By the 1990s, the State was deep in litigation aimed at protecting Idaho’s water, and Snake River Alliance members were bearing witness to train after train filled with the most radioactive waste on earth as it moved to the Idaho National Laboratory for indefinite storage. Idahoans’ efforts led to the Department of Energy and the Department of the Navy agreeing to settle a lawsuit the State of Idaho was quite likely going to win.
The 1995 Settlement Agreement sets firm deadlines for when transuranic waste and spent fuel must leave Idaho and outlines the framework for INL cleanup that is still going forward under Superfund and RCRA, the main hazardous waste laws. It sets strict rules for waste treatment for INL and non-INL waste. The 1995 Settlement Agreement includes an outright ban of commercial spent nuclear fuel (SNF) shipments to the state.
But in January 2011 – without engaging or even warning the public – Governor Otter and Attorney General Wasden signed a side agreement with INL that attempts to modify the ban on commercial SNF by allowing “research quantities” to enter the state. This side agreement does not in any way lessen the State of Idaho’s right under the settlement agreement to block any and all spent nuclear fuel shipments from the Department of Energy if DOE fails to meet the commitments made in 1995.
DOE shipments of spent fuel are currently and appropriately blocked from entering Idaho because the DOE has thus far failed to remove and treat liquid sodium-bearing high-level waste from buried tanks. INL’s failure 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.
In addition, the DOE will soon fall behind its enforceable schedule for removing plutonium-contaminated waste from the state. That shortfall is due to the shutdown of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico because of two serious accidents there last winter. Last week the DOE admitted that its plan to reopen the repository is already months behind schedule.
Yet on New Year’s Eve, the DOE gave the Governor until high noon on January 9, 2015, to accede to the DOE’s desire to ship in commercial SNF this summer and again at the beginning of 2016 despite DOE’s failure to meet significant Settlement Agreement milestones. On January 8, the Governor and Attorney General agreed, thereby lowering Idaho’s strongest shield against becoming a nuclear waste dump. Even as they acknowledged the shield is “unique in the nation,” they chose to relinquish the power Idaho gained in 1995. The DOE compliance issues could have been resolved by forcing DOE compliance – so why would the Governor and Attorney General yield to the DOE’s deadline for preemptive surrender?
According to the DOE, the spent fuel that the Governor and Attorney General intend to allow in this summer will be used in an ongoing pyroprocessing “research project which is funded and currently being implemented.” Pyroprocessing is a reprocessing technology that raises particular proliferation concerns and, over the decades INL has already been researching it, pyroprocessing spent fuel has proven to be so slow and so expensive that commercial interests will probably never embrace it. It’s not at all clear how the new spent fuel shipment will mean new money for INL or make any significant progress towards overcoming nuclear power’s inherent flaws.
Nuclear waste generated by out-of-state commercial facilities should not be allowed into Idaho, and particularly not at a time when the DOE is already failing to meet a number of its most important obligations. Relinquishing the State’s primary tool to force DOE’s compliance by letting DOE ship in more spent fuel is remarkably imprudent.
The Idaho National Laboratory began receiving spent nuclear fuel from outside Idaho well over a half century ago with the assurance the waste would leave. But not a scrap has. Phil Batt signed the 1995 Settlement Agreement, which he now calls the “People’s Agreement.” When speaking about the latest proposed shipments, he said, “You take an ounce of the waste from the federal government, they want to give you 10,000 pounds. And they always say they’ll move it out, but they won’t.” That’s Idaho’s history with nuclear waste in a nutshell.