By Beatrice Brailsford
As many of you know, Idaho’s Governor and Attorney General are exploring a deal with the Department of Energy to allow two shipments of research quantities of commercial spent nuclear fuel to come to Idaho. Doing so would compromise one of the most important and broadly popular provisions of the 1995 Settlement Agreement: Idaho’s strong shield against becoming a nuclear waste dump. Part of this deal, the Governor and Attorney General said, was to somehow use their willingness to accept additional nuclear waste as an inducement for the DOE to meet long overdue cleanup deadlines. It seemed to be some sort of carrot-and-stick maneuver, though it’s not clear how the deal would give Idaho a stronger stick than it already has.
We challenged this preemptive surrender of Idaho’s rights under the Settlement Agreement in our January SnakeByte article, “No Time to Surrender.” Many, many people in Idaho supported our position.
Since then, some Idaho leaders and officials have moved to distance themselves from, complicate, or oppose the deal the Governor and Attorney General had been set to strike in January. Since the news first broke, the following important events have taken place:
1. In a February 27, 2015, letter following up on the letters exchanged at the turn of the year, Lawrence Wasden, Idaho’s Attorney General, reminded the Secretary of Energy that he had told DOE representatives on January 6 that he would not agree to allow commercial spent nuclear fuel into the state “until such time as the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit [IWTU] is operational and DOE has entered into an enforceable commitment to resolve the 1995 Settlement Agreement noncompliance issues.” Further, Mr. Wasden reiterated his position that, based upon the information provided at the January meeting, he was “not inclined to support” the June shipment.
His determination to block that shipment may now be stronger still. The head of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality passed on to Mr. Wasden the DOE’s own uncertainty that it could meet the milestones it may have outlined in the meeting.
Mr. Wasden told the DOE very plainly that, if it took title to either the June 2015 or January 2016 consignment of commercial spent fuel, it did so at its own risk. We commend Mr. Wasden for his firm, carefully reasoned assertion of his right and intention to refuse to allow commercial spent fuel into Idaho as matters stand.
2. On March 3 it became evident the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is willing to take a hard enforcement line regardless of the Governor’s deal. The DOE was supposed to have started operating the IWTU in June 2012 to empty the buried tanks and dry all the liquid high-level sodium-buried waste within a year, but serious design flaws stalled it. DEQ could have levied penalties when deadlines first started slipping, but chose instead to renegotiate the hazardous waste law deadlines.
But now the DOE has missed the renegotiated deadlines as well, and DEQ has imposed a $648,000 fine and demanded a new schedule, due by April 3, to remove the liquid waste by the end of 2018. The Alliance is skeptical and will keep a careful eye on the new schedule and implementation. During a March 2 Alliance tour of INL, DOE acknowledged that significant problems showed up in the recent simulant run at the IWTU. The problems require additional modifications to the equipment, which will in turn require another full simulant run. Any schedule developed before that process is complete (which will most certainly not happen before April 3) will be far from foolproof and potentially unachievable.
3. Former Idaho governors Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt learned a key nuclear reality during their public service: Past nuclear contamination continues to present significant challenges today and will linger in our land and water until the end of time. On March 5, they looked to the future and announced an intent to sue under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to force a full evaluation of the environmental effects of the proposed pyroprocessing research, the ostensible “purpose and need” of the first shipment. Given the Attorney General’s current stance, that shipment may not occur at all, but some of the former governors’ points raise larger questions even so. The DOE analyzed the effects of pyroprocessing sodium-bonded spent fuel under NEPA, and the Alliance was very active in that study. But the fuel DOE now wants to look at pyroprocessing is from commercial light water reactors, a much, much larger waste stream. We can share what we have learned with former governors and with you. Please contact Beatrice Brailsford, the Alliance’s nuclear program director, at email@example.com or (208) 233-7212
As of this publication, the DOE has yet to respond to the notice of potential litigation.
Clearly the situation surrounding the two waivers is more contentious and fluid than the DOE had hoped it would be. Many entities from what the Idaho Falls newspaper calls “INL country” have been very active in voicing support for the deal. We must all join the debate and there are lots of ways to do so.
Remind Governor Otter that the best way to protect Idaho from becoming a nuclear waste dump is to prohibit the importation and accumulation of nuclear waste here.
Commend Attorney General Wasden for his clear look at how best to protect Idaho.
Share your concerns with your friends and neighbors to broaden the debate even further through letters to the editor, Facebook postings, and tweets.