Guest column: Idaho’s nuclear waste: A problem we’re leaving to our children

Idaho has acquiesced to accepting — potentially permanently — significant additional amounts of highly radioactive waste, writes Cecil D. Andrus.

Since the 1950s the Department of Energy (and predecessor agencies) has been “storing” highly radioactive material — spent nuclear fuel (SNF) — from the nuclear navy at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). As a result Idaho has played a central role in keeping aircraft carriers, submarines and other ships on the high seas, enhancing our national security. No other state has played a bigger role.

The original decision to accumulate hundreds of tons of highly radioactive waste in Idaho was driven by a desire, as an admiral once told me, to keep the material out of sight and out of mind. A remote location in a state with a small population was ideal, the admiral said.

The Energy Department recently completed work on the environmental impact statement (EIS) needed to construct a new storage facility for SNF thereby ensuring the waste will continue to come. The $1.6 billion project will create 360 construction jobs and obviously brings benefits to the local economy. I certainly understand the difficulty of resisting a $1.6 billion project, but by accepting DOE’s plans Idaho has acquiesced to accepting — potentially permanently — significant additional amounts of highly radioactive waste piled on the tons that have accumulated over the last 60 years.

In exchange for the temporary construction jobs at INL here is what Idaho gets, and I’ll quote DOE’s own language. Infrastructure will be created “to ensure the long-term capability of the [Navy program] to support naval spent nuclear fuel handling for at least the next 40 years.” The decision allows DOE “to unload, transfer, prepare, and package naval spent nuclear fuel for disposal (emphasis added)…” until…”at least 2060.”

There is perhaps no better illustration of the abject failure of the nation’s nuclear waste management efforts than the accumulation of vast amounts of spent nuclear fuel in Idaho, a situation I continue to believe most Idahoans find unacceptable.

By one measure Idaho currently hosts 308 metric tons of SNF from the Navy, foreign and domestic research reactors, commercial reactors and the debris from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. This includes 900,000 gallons of particularly dangerous liquid waste that remains untreated and buried in 50-year old tanks. The waste is perched above one of the largest fresh water aquifers in the world.

The unspoken decision to make Idaho a disposal site was thrust upon the state in the 1950s and perpetuated for generations because of the stunning failure by administrations of both political parties to create a permanent disposal site. DOE officials speak often of a “permanent” disposal facility outside of Idaho, but the sad truth is there is no permanent site and under even the best case there won’t be one for years. Meanwhile, Idaho continues to assume the risks of having the waste here.

The only protection we have against the waste remaining indefinitely in Idaho is Governor Phil Batt’s 1995 agreement mandating removal of all this material by 2035. DOE’s stunning admission in the recent EIS that it is expecting to keep high level waste in Idaho long beyond that deadline makes it absolutely essential that state officials vigorously enforce the Batt agreement, in federal court if necessary.

While it is true that Idaho has enjoyed economic benefits from its relationship with the Department of Energy it is also true that we never agreed to become a waste “disposal” site.

In fact, if the decision were left to Idahoans I don’t believe we would ever permit the state to effectively become a high-level nuclear waste disposal site, but the sad reality is that through neglect and incompetence the federal government has essentially created just such a site in Idaho. Our children will likely be living with that reality long after many of us are gone.

Cecil D. Andrus was elected governor of Idaho four times in 1970, 1974, 1986 and 1990 and served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior.