The State of Idaho’s efforts to force the Department of Energy to dig up plutonium-contaminated waste buried above the Snake River Aquifer began 35 years ago. On March 17, 2008, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed a lower court decision that the DOE is obligated to remove that waste from Idaho. That decision is forcing the DOE and its regulators—the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency—to reassess the plan to dig up only 4.8 acres of the 36 acres that contain plutonium-contaminated waste, which is called “transuranic.”

Something like 750,000 boxes, barrels, and crates of transuranic waste, mostly from the Rocky Flats weapons plant, were buried at the Idaho National Laboratory’s Radioactive Waste Management Complex between 1954 and 1970. The pits and trenches that hold the waste are not lined, and contamination has escaped and reached the Snake River Aquifer. These burial grounds have worried Idahoans—justifiably—for decades.

The State of Idaho started pushing back against this waste importation in 1973, when Governor Cecil Andrus and Senator Frank Church got a commitment from the Atomic Energy Agency that already buried plutonium-contaminated waste would be removed by “the end of this decade.” But not much progress was made, and Mr. Andrus finally stopped all waste shipments from Rocky Flats in 1988, even though the DOE was by then storing newly received waste above ground. Rocky Flats was shut down by the Idaho shipping ban and an FBI raid exposing serious environmental crimes there. Still, nothing much was done about the buried waste. The Alliance mounted its Stop the Shipments campaign, and our members were the bedrock on which the State could take an even stronger stand and sue the DOE. A series of lawsuits was finally settled in 1995.

The Settlement Agreement the State signed with the DOE required that all transuranic waste located at the Idaho National Laboratory be removed from the state by no later than 2018. But the DOE later asserted that “all transuranic waste now located at INEL” didn’t mean “all transuranic…”. The DOE argued that the Settlement Agreement covered only the transuranic waste stored above ground, which is cheaper and easier to remove than the buried waste and does not pose as great a threat to our environment.

The State went back to court for clarification, this time arguing that the word all mean all. The federal district court in Idaho twice ruled in the State’s favor, and this month the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.

The first effect of the ruling is that the decision on what to do with the buried waste has been delayed. That’s a positive sign, since it probably means the DOE and its regulators are considering removing more than the expected 4.8 acres. A longer term effect is just as important. The State, under five administrations, has emphatically demonstrated to the DOE that the people of Idaho expect the federal government to keep its word and fulfill its commitments.

This week we mark the 30th anniversary of the nuclear reactor accident at Three-Mile Island, Pennsylvania. After the partial meltdown, all the debris from the reactor’s core, including damaged, irradiated fuel, was shipped to Idaho. Ostensibly the material came here for research, but the research program was winding down by the time the last shipments came in. It’s all still here. If the 1995 Settlement Agreement had been in effect 30 years ago, TMI shipments and storage could have been banned.