The recent dustup over nuclear waste involving Gov. Butch Otter and two of his predecessors demonstrated two points:
Æ First, it showed that the very idea of opening Idahos borders to waste shipments is politically radioactive. Moving quickly and speaking unequivocally, Otter insisted that his administration has no interest in negotiating with the federal government to allow additional waste into Idaho.
Æ Second, it underscores the fact that, after decades of researching, building and operating nuclear reactors, the federal government doesnt have any idea where to store the resulting waste. That means used nuclear reactor fuels long-lived and lethally radioactive remain parked indefinitely at dozens of locations, including the Idaho National Laboratory.
As long as the feds have no plan for all of this waste just an open-ended and seemingly unfounded commitment to do something then it becomes Idahos job to say no, and to remain vigilant and unyielding.
Which is, ultimately, what unfolded over the past two weeks.
It began when Gov. Cecil Andrus accused INL officials and state leaders of working on a secret scheme to open Idahos borders to additional waste shipments. Gov. Phil Batt stopped short of repeating Andrus allegation but urged the state to hold firm to the nuclear shipment agreement Batt engineered during his term as governor. Otter accused Andrus of tilting at imaginary windmills and insisted he had no interest in revising the 1995 waste agreement.
Was there a scheme? It depends on who you believe.
Andrus pinned his argument on a 2010 internal document by INL director John Grossenbacher, which suggested Idaho could create new jobs by accepting 3,000 tons of orphan waste from commercial reactor sites. Putting this suggestion in writing was probably not the smartest move.
Perhaps Andrus jumped to conclusions or perhaps not. Either way, Andrus has come upon his distrust of the federal government after years of delays and double-talk about nuclear waste and the INL. And its not as if Otter has ever been bashful about voicing his skepticism about Uncle Sam, whether the topic is nuclear waste, wolves or health care. As demonstrated by Andrus, a Democrat, and Otter, a Republican, neither party has cornered the market on questioning the feds methods and motives.
And when it comes to nuclear waste, skepticism is particularly warranted. Heres why. The federal government is supposed to take ownership of the 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuels now stored at the nations commercial reactor sites. But now that the Obama administration has abandoned its nuclear waste storage Plan A, a proposed burial site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., the feds have no contingency plan.
We would be foolish, indeed, to renegotiate the agreement and accept commercial spent fuel, Batt wrote. There is a humongous pile of it throughout the country ... and the government is desperate to find a home for it.
This isnt just an Idaho issue, of course. The inability, or the unwillingness, to crack the nuclear waste storage code is an abject political failure, and a potentially fatal flaw for nuclear power development in the United States. No matter how promising the research in new reactor designs work centered at the INL the nuclear waste issue remains the industrys albatross.
And yet, as we have seen over the past two weeks, this is a volatile Idaho issue. Idahos experience and history in nuclear research, and the feds lack of permanent storage options, would make Idaho a potential destination for shipments of waste orphan or otherwise. The one saving grace is the 1995 agreement, and the enforceable limits it places on federal shipments.
This agreement is by no means bulletproof. It requires the feds to move all existing waste out of Idaho by 2035 and as the feds continue to dither about long-term storage, it becomes ever likelier that Idaho will simply have to settle for collecting fines and remaining one of Uncle Sams waste custodians.
That said, this agreement is still the best protection Idaho has. Sometimes, it just takes a little dustup to bring that into focus.
Our View is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesmans editorial board.