Idaho’s nuclear waste settlement with the federal government capped the amount of spent fuel allowed into Idaho National Laboratory. Notably, it also limited importation to the Department of Energy and Navy.
In 2011, however, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter approved a minor change to the agreement. And, as the Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker reported June 4, that minor change is a big deal.
Allowing the site to import and test small quantities of commercial fuel has, so far, resulted in two deals worth $25 million annually. One can argue signing that 2011 memorandum of understanding was the most politically courageous and economically productive moment of Otter’s two terms as governor.
And yet, Otter has issued no news releases touting his achievement. He said nothing about it during his GOP primary contest with Sen. Russ Fulcher. That silence is indicative of just how tricky and multi-faceted the debate over the future of INL is in a state that remains economically dependent upon it.
INL’s economic future is tied to that 1995 agreement and the desire of former governors Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt to mitigate threats to the Snake River Aquifer.
The good news is that’s being done. The deadline to convert the remaining 900,000 gallons of liquid waste to solids is Dec. 31. Buried waste is being removed and caps placed on subsurface disposal areas.
The death of Yucca Mountain, however, means the terms of the agreement — that the high-level waste and spent fuel be removed by 2035 — will not be fulfilled. That’s where Otter and his Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race, A.J. Balukoff, come in.
If Idaho is to reach consensus on the future of INL, it needs to start this tricky and politically difficult conversation.
Are we willing to tweak the agreement again to allow the import of greater quantities of commercial fuel for research purposes, which could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars?
Does Idaho talk to the feds about extending that utterly unrealistic 2035 deadline in exchange for infrastructure investments on the desert?
In an era of budget austerity and fierce competition for federal research dollars, INL needs the opportunity to grow itself. The recession cost the site 600 jobs and what should be a $1.3 billion dollar enterprise hovers around $860 million.
The Murray-Ryan budget deal, not to mention the good work done by Congressman Mike Simpson, has stabilized things on the desert. But that deal is good only for two years and Simpson won’t be there forever.
Also, Idahoans should be cognizant of the national issues at stake. If America wants to address global warming and stabilize its power grid, the nation’s lead nuclear research lab must play a role. That only can happen if cleanup milestones continue to be met and if we are willing to begin talking about what INL of 2020 or even 2035 should be.
Certainly, education, tax policy and health care are vital issues Otter and Balukoff should address during this election season. But so is the future of an installation that produces a staggering $3.5 billion in annual economic activity for the state and serves a vital national interest.
So, what say you, Gov. Otter?
How about you, Mr. Balukoff?
Those you would lead deserve to know.