Lawmakers vent spent fuel frustrations


BOISE — The House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee held a hearing Monday on the question of spent nuclear fuel shipments. It was an opportunity for the Attorney General’s Office to provide information on the 1995 Settlement Agreement’s history — and for lawmakers to vent frustrations at the continued blockage of such shipments.

Shipments of small quantities of spent nuclear fuel to be used for research at Idaho National Laboratory have been blocked because the Department of Energy has been unable to get the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit up and running.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden halted the shipments over the objections of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and a large bloc of Idaho lawmakers. Tensions with lawmakers last year rose to the point that Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, at one point indicated that it might be time to re-examine the consolidation of the Attorney General’s Office, a move that could greatly reduce the power and budget of the office.

Deputy Attorney General Kathleen Trever appeared Monday before the committee. While she isn’t involved in current negotiations over fuel shipments, Trever helped negotiate the 1995 agreement as a deputy attorney general, and served for a decade as the state INL coordinator of the Department of Environmental Quality.

Trever said an important backdrop to the development of the agreement was a set of broken promises by DOE to Gov. Cecil Andrus in the 1970s. DOE had promised waste from nuclear weapons development at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado would be out of the state within a decade.

But when Andrus returned for a second stint as governor in the late 1980s, Trever said, “the waste was still there.”

Andrus initially ordered that the state’s borders be sealed to shipments, a decision that was blocked by the courts. But Andrus pursued further claims against DOE, forcing additional permitting and environmental reviews.

When Gov. Phil Batt took office, she said, he pursued an agreement that would uphold three principles: that Idaho not become a repository for waste by default, that DOE had to deal with existing waste in the state, and that INL remain a viable research laboratory.

The state and DOE eventually reached a settlement. And that settlement laid out a 40-year timeline for dealing with nuclear waste in Idaho. It left Idaho with only one means to enforce compliance: blocking new shipments of waste.

While the agreement has seen minor alterations, such as provisions to deal with buried waste in 2008 and a memorandum of agreement that allowed small shipments into the state in 2011, it reached a deadlock in 2012. That’s when certain liquid nuclear waste was supposed to be dealt with. Five years later, IWTU still isn’t operational.

Trever faced pointed questions from lawmakers, especially many from eastern Idaho, about the continued blockage of those shipments.

Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls, asked questions that highlighted the fact that Idaho is permitted to waive DOE’s failure to meet the liquid waste clean-up milestone. Otter favors such a waiver, but Wasden disagrees.

Trever said negotiations with DOE aimed to find an alternative framework that would retain “accountability that addresses the state’s interests,” but after two years of talks no agreement could be reached. She said with the arrival of a new presidential administration and new DOE leadership, that could change in the future.

Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, pointed out that one of the key aims of the agreement was to retain INL’s viability as a nuclear research institution.

“We’re denying our people the opportunity to be a viable nuclear research institute because we won’t provide them the materials to work with,” he said.

Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, asked why the state was “holding that research facility hostage.”

“If we continue to not allow (spent fuel shipments) here, will that project move to New Mexico or some other location so Idaho will no longer have the opportunity to be involved in that research?” he said.

Trever said she couldn’t speculate on whether such work would be taken by another national lab, but she noted that INL had found workarounds using fuel it already has for some of the research. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee did take from INL one shipment of spent fuel last year, after it could not be sent to Idaho.

Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, asked why the state had taken such a “hard-nosed” stance in negotiations.

“It’s not a matter of being hard-nosed,” Trever replied. “It’s a matter of coming up with a framework that still meets the parties’ original intent.”

Committee Chairman Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, ended the hearing by voicing his opinion: Research at INL and cleanup at the desert site should be considered separate issues, and Idaho should negotiate a new agreement to deal with the issue of spent fuel for research.

“I think adding in this new work that’s being done over there, investigation on the spent fuel, is a totally different thing than (what’s covered under) that old agreement,” he said. “And to use that old agreement to keep us from doing more research on new stuff, I think it’s a terrible thing.”

“Let’s start over again,” he said.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.