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Turning the Starship

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The Alliance has Two Missions One Bright Future

Nuclear Containment   Flickering monitors lined the green walls of a large room. I fell into an uncomfortable plastic chair, exhausted from a long day on the Arco desert. Inside the 3-foot thick walls of this huge building the only noise I could hear was the hum of Integrated Waste Treatment Unitflorescent ceiling lights.

I needed to sit still and take in the scene in the control room of one of our nation’s hoped-for high-level liquid nuclear waste treatment facility – the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit. It looked like a Hollywood set from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Actually, the IWTU is a little like a movie set because it has never operated. Construction of this facility started 10 years ago. And despite nearly a billion dollars of tax money, it has yet to begin its important mission to solidify some of America’s liquid nuclear waste. Not because of a faulty “warp drive” or unstable dilithium crystals – but because of a years-long cascade of problems, both management and technical, the latest a jammed mechanical grinder. We are forever hopeful that maybe next year, with more tax money, it will work.

The nuclear industry still wants us to believe that splitting the atom is cleaner than coal. For many reasons that is not true – safety concerns at nuclear plants, the threat of nuclear proliferation, nuclear worker health, cost of operations and waste disposal. But in Idaho, these claims especially sting.

The lie about the prospects for clean nuclear energy hurts – in part — because we are in the middle of a $20 billion cleanup of nuclear contamination that isn’t even close to finished. But mostly because, for more than 60 years, nuclear materials have been brought here, made here and otherwise left here – perched above the Snake River Aquifer – always with a promise that it was clean and safe.

Renewable Energy  It has been a year since the Paris Climate Accord launched the world into something bigger than a space race – a race to create a zero-emission energy future. The USA has the largest per-capita energy consumption and the most energy infrastructure, so we have the most changes to make. But, we also have more financial resources and a democratic government that can (if it wants to) make change happen quickly.

When the Alliance started planning for the 2016 Solarize the Valley campaign, Idaho had fewer solar installations than almost any other state. We haven’t changed that in one year, but we made rooftop solar easier and more affordable for 45 households and installed over $900,000 worth of solar panels.

Next year, the Alliance will represent our members fighting for the future of Net Energy Metering – a critical policy that empowers citizen investments in renewables – against the electric industry that has dismantled it most famously in Arizona but also in Nevada and has its eyes on Florida and Idaho. The Alliance will help make the public case that it is time to close the North Valmy coal plant and replace it with renewables and conservation. And we will help stop Idaho utilities from spending more money on the aging Wyoming coal plants, Jim Bridger Units I & II.

It matters what happens on the Idaho desert  Nuclear power makes no sense for Idaho because of our abundant hydropower, sun and wind. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that the nuclear industry is planning to bring NuScale’s cluster of new “small modular reactors” to Eastern Idaho. If the industry persists with this multi-billion dollar proposal, the Alliance will dig in against this nationally heralded “last stand” for nuclear power.

From the outside, with the blue sky reflecting off this huge metal box, any unsuspecting tourist would guess that the IWTU was a food processing plant. But instead of a loading dock for potato trucks, there is a huge blue door on an air-locked cargo bay where huge concrete caskets of solidified nuclear waste will someday to be shuttled around on a surface of compressed air like hovercraft.

On the inside, the building is old before its time, paint chipped from construction and testing and retesting. In the control room, I the operator explains that the blinking monitors are an upgrade from earlier equipment that didn’t work well in an emergency. Now the monitors will be more helpful in an emergency, the operators will be able to evacuate and the facility will automatically shut down.

I’m glad the IWTU is ready for an unplanned shut down, but we don’t know if or when the facility will be turned on. As a nation we’ve already spent way too much time developing nuclear energy that is still neither clean nor affordable. That’s ok — there is still time to change the direction of our starship – and energy infrastructure across the world. So the time is now for the Snake River Alliance to stay very busy “solarizing” and democratizing our one bright energy future.

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