Printed on: November 27, 2012

Nuclear waste's future unclear in Idaho

By Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman

The decision to back away from Yucca Mountain as a long-term nuclear waste storage site is one of the first-term policies of President Barack Obama that is now solidified after his re-election.

That means Congress is going to have to address the long-term future examined by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. The commission recommended developing an interim storage plan for the 70,000 tons of high-level spent nuclear fuel now sitting next to nuclear reactors in states that consent to take it.

Idaho has 300 tons of spent fuel, and the Navy's plans to ship its waste to Yucca Mountain will have to change.

In the meantime, eastern Idaho business and government leaders have sought to get Idaho to join New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas as states proposing their own interim storage sites.

Idaho National Laboratory contractor officials have less ambitious goals to allow more waste into the state for research purposes.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's 13-member Leadership In Nuclear Energy Commission has been exploring the future of nuclear research at INL. But its ability to maneuver became limited when former Gov. Cecil Andrus leaked a document from INL contractor Battelle Energy Alliance that showed it wanted to dramatically change the 1995 agreement to keep nuclear waste out of the state negotiated by Gov. Phil Batt.

The commission delayed its final report until Dec. 3. After that, it will take public comments into January.

Idaho voters backed Batt's 1995 agreement with the Department of Energy 60 to 40 percent, sending the message: Don't send more commercial nuclear waste to Idaho, and get rid of all of the waste that's here by 2035.

Otter himself shut the door to the idea that INL -- or the state for that matter -- would become a nuclear waste repository.

"I'll say this as plainly and as unequivocally as I can: Idaho will NOT be a repository for nuclear waste," Otter wrote in a guest opinion.

Of course, that doesn't address the Navy's waste in eastern Idaho that has nowhere to go. When Idaho hits its deadline in 2035, the federal government can merely pay a fine and continue storing the waste here.

Federal court decisions also have upheld Department of Energy plans to leave some low-level, long-lived nuclear waste in the ground at INL forever, essentially leaving portions of the 890-square mile site as a permanent sacrifice zone.

Batt never envisioned that.

Last week, Doug Sayer, president and CEO of Premier Technology Inc., a Blackfoot company that works in the nuclear industry nationwide, urged the state to consider the economic consequences of federal cutbacks on INL and the eastern Idaho economy.

Sayer thinks recycling spent fuel makes more sense than burying it, and he wants Otter's nuclear commission to push for a new agreement with the federal government.

But Sayer wants state control, and he doesn't want the waste at INL.

"I believe there might be a location in Idaho that is not over the aquifer and that has suitable geology and that the technology exists that would allow us to construct a safe and environmentally sound facility," Sayer said. "I would build it on state endowment lands so all of the revenues would go toward our education system and our universities could manage and operate the facilities, once again generating opportunities and revenues for our state."

To address the realities of long-term nuclear waste, Idaho needs a new discussion on the level of the 1996 waste initiative campaign.

The Snake River Alliance, the Idaho anti-nuclear group, is certain to oppose any change. And it has the 1996 vote as its defense.

For Idaho to rewrite the nuclear waste agreement, Otter would have to take the lead, campaign hard statewide and get support from Batt and -- ideally -- Andrus. It might take another voter initiative. Many Idahoans today weren't voters in 1996.

Sayer said the state must ask whether his plan makes environmental, social and economic sense.

"If the answers to these questions are no, then I will face the fiscal cliff right along with you," Sayer said.