Printed on: December 13, 2012

The facts as we know them

Idaho's 1995 nuclear waste agreement with the Department of Energy forced the federal government to clean up its mess on the desert. And while that work is not complete, remarkable progress has been made. Of 963 enforceable cleanup milestones since the agreement was put in place, 959 have been completed. Twenty million gallons of deadly liquid waste has been converted into a laundry detergent-like material and safely stored in concrete-encased stainless steel bins with 500-year-design lives; another 900,000 gallons of liquid waste remain.

We should all be clear: Those 900,000 gallons need to be converted. Solidifying the liquid waste makes it less mobile and reduces the threat to the aquifer. Once that occurs, however, Idahoans will be forced to acknowledge that we live in a far different world than the one in which Gov. Phil Batt negotiated his deal 17 years ago. Budget cuts have many worried about preserving INL's research mission, and the federal repository at Yucca Mountain, assumed as part of the Batt Agreement, is in mothballs.

The Batt Agreement says the converted liquid waste must be prepared for removal by 2035. But with Yucca out of the picture, it has no place to go. Idaho can prepare to impose the $60,000 per day penalty for missing the 2035 deadline, but that is not a severe imposition or of great value to the state. Much more important is to talk to the Department of Energy about potential investments at INL for housing materials that aren't going anywhere and can be safely stored though the year 2500.

This is where the conversation on the Batt Agreement should be centered -- on the potential for keeping some of what we have.

Batt and former Gov. Cecil Andrus are Idaho's moral authority on this subject. It matters that they oppose changes to the agreement. When the LINE Commission makes its formal recommendations to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter next month, the suggestion that INL be the site of a pilot interim storage facility for spent fuel housed at closed commercial reactors should be dropped. There's no point in going there. Otter made that clear earlier this year when he wrote: "I'll say this as plainly and as unequivocally as I can: Idaho will NOT be a repository for nuclear waste."

The Batt Agreement, however, was never intended to adversely impact the site's research mission. Two years ago, Idaho, led by Otter, amended the agreement to allow small quantities of commercial reactor fuel into the state for research. We must remain open to similar possibilities into the future.

There's nothing in Batt or Andrus' statements on the Settlement Agreement that say Idaho shouldn't be talking to the DOE. Preserving INL's core mission means we better find a middle ground that allows us to honor the spirit of the Batt Agreement while reacting to the facts as we know them in 2012.

Corey Taule