For years now, the nuclear power industry has been telling us that we are in the midst of a “Nuclear Renaissance,” that nuclear power can be re-born again if only the government would do two things: Throw US taxpayer dollars at the corporations that want to build new reactors and uranium enrichment plants. “Solve” the nuclear waste problem.
Whenever the talk turns to “solving” the nuclear waste problem, the focus is on the political manifestations of that problem. And the solution comes down to moving highly radioactive irradiated fuel from commercial reactors – mostly in the East – to large Department of Energy sites – mostly in the West. The Snake River Alliance has long advocated that nuclear waste be stored as safely as possible as close to its point of generation as possible. That shifts the focus from moving the problem out of sight to actually addressing any potential safety problems in current storage. Furthermore, in the 1990s the Alliance helped lead a successful campaign that culminated in the agreement to block the importation of commercial waste to Idaho and guarantee that no irradiated fuel remain in Idaho after 2035.
But lately there seems to be an odd move afoot to accept, even invite, highly radioactive nuclear waste into Idaho so that it can be the raw material for reprocessing, one of the most dangerous industrial processes on earth. The political machinations were first described in the Idaho Statesman.
The Idaho Republican Central Committee resolved this summer that irradiated nuclear fuel is not a “waste” but rather an “asset-based material” useful for research (which probably has only limited utility) or “nuclear fuel manufacturing” (a barely recognizable description of reprocessing that glosses over its environmental and proliferation threats, as well as its high economic costs).
A handful of Idaho politicos and business people have taken up the call. An Idaho contingent led by the Lieutenant Governor) told the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future that the Idaho National Laboratory is a good destination for intensely radioactive “asset-based material.” Their arguments contain the same dizzying shift between research and production made by Idaho’s largest political party. But the BRC might not be the best arena for those arguments. Its draft report explicitly asserts that reprocessing offers no advantages to meet the nuclear waste challenge over the next several decades at least…long after irradiated fuel is supposed to leave this state.
These misguided political shifts might make it more likely that 65,000 metric tons of irradiated fuel from reactors all over the country would end up in Idaho, where they would remain for decades at least. The potential that nuclear waste might be consolidated above the Snake River Aquifer, Idaho’s lifeblood and the sole source of drinking water for 300,000 of our friends and neighbors, has already led to pushback. There will be more. As a recent editorial noted: “Idahoans have been adamant on one point: They don’t want their state to become a dump for nuclear waste.” Stay tuned.