On Thursday evening, July 14, the Department of Energy (DOE) is coming to Boise to ask Idahoans what we think of a new process for siting nuclear waste facilities. After the agency spent decades trying to force nuclear waste on unwilling Nevadans, the DOE has a “new” approach . . . asking permission.

The DOE has posed a number of questions and failed to mention others. We’ll consider many of them in the weeks before the meeting. For those of us in Idaho, the first question is –

What’s at Stake in “Consent-Based” Nuclear Siting?

Idaho has been targeted for nuclear waste almost since the Idaho National Laboratory was founded in 1949. We’ve had to accept massive amounts of plutonium-contaminated waste from a nuclear weapons plant in Colorado and spent nuclear fuel from all over, including foreign reactors, the nuclear Navy, and commercial reactors. Even the melted core from the Three Mile Island disaster was sent to INL. The waste sent here has polluted Idaho’s air, land, and water.

Now the DOE is once again trying to move nuclear waste – no doubt to the West. The federal government does not expect to have a permanent geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel for at least 30 years. In the meantime, there is political pressure to consolidate spent fuel away from shutdown reactors as early as five years from now.

Non-consent is as important as consent

Idaho public officials and private individuals and groups (including the Snake River Alliance) have resisted waste importation for decades. In 1995, the State of Idaho and federal government agreed that, though INL can still accept spent fuel from the nuclear Navy and very small amounts from foreign reactors, most of the nuclear waste in the United States will never come here. The ban, ratified by the voters in 1996, explicitly covers commercial spent nuclear fuel, a large, growing, and intensely radioactive waste stream.

The DOE wants to find communities that say YES to that waste stream. One of its key concerns is making sure a YES is ironclad and a consenting community can’t change its mind. But apparently the agency wants to see if Idaho will change its mind.

So, we have to ask: Why can’t the DOE hear NO? Idaho’s non-consent is fierce and longstanding. Yet the DOE and its contractor at INL keep testing our resolve. No means no. The DOE should stop looking to change Idaho’s existing “non-consent” status.

“Interim” consolidated storage can become permanent

The new approach to solving the nuclear waste problem delays a permanent repository for commercial spent nuclear fuel until 2048. In the meantime, at least one pilot “interim” consolidated storage facility and at least one larger “temporary” dump would be built. Though the DOE has tried to set opening times for the new temporary facilities, it hasn’t even taken a stab at when they might close. Further, the size of the proposed facilities is murky, partly because the pile of waste is growing by the day.

In other words, the DOE wants communities to “consent” to storing an unspecified amount of nuclear waste for an unknown period of time.

Here’s what Idahoans have learned from 65 years of INL history. What comes here stays here. The nuclear Navy has moved every scrap of its spent fuel just one time – from a nuclear shipyard to the INL’s Naval Reactors Facility. Consolidating that entire waste stream above our drinking water has made it no more likely it will move on to a permanent geologic disposal site, particularly if the DOE and nuclear Navy break the promises they made in the 1995 Settlement Agreement.

Moving the problem doesn’t solve it

Nuclear waste should be stored as safely as possible as close to its point of generation as possible. In 2010 the Alliance affirmed that position and joined public interest groups from all fifty states when we signed “Principles for Safeguarding Nuclear Waste at Reactors.” Consolidating commercial spent nuclear fuel on an “interim” basis won’t limit environmental risks. But it may well limit the government’s and utilities’ public relations problems. Right now commercial spent fuel is stored at the reactors where it’s generated, predominantly east of the Mississippi, near major cities, and along the West Coast. In other words, it’s stored in areas with a lot more political power than places “in the middle of nowhere” that are habitually considered for nuclear dumps. Places like Idaho. And once nuclear utilities’ public relations problems are solved, the drive for a nuclear waste solution will wane.

Let’s tell ’em

Idahoans need to get involved. We’ve learned a lot of hard lessons about nuclear waste. It is too easy for sparsely populated places in the West to become nuclear waste dumps. We learned how to say NO. Now the DOE wants to talk about nuclear waste again. Speak up and say what we’ve learned. Register to participate in person or online by clicking here.