The deadlock between Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and the Department of Energy over allowing spent nuclear fuel into Idaho for research has gone on too long. With new players in Washington, it’s time for Idaho leaders to set aside the bad blood and build a new relationship that will benefit Idaho.
There is reason for optimism. There are new faces all around this issue: a new presidential administration; a new secretary of energy; a relatively new nuclear cleanup contractor, with a new plan; and a fairly new director of the research lab. There is too much riding on long-term success for Idaho, the Idaho National Laboratory, our national security and U.S. energy policy to let this opportunity slip away.
In 1995, DOE agreed with Idaho to clean up waste at INL. DOE has made good on some efforts and failed to honor other aspects of that agreement. It wants to bring new radioactive material in to INL for research purposes. But to hold DOE to its cleanup promises, Wasden feels compelled to block these shipments.
This is not simple stubbornness. The federal government has failed to begin processing 900,000 gallons of radioactive liquid waste. Wasden often remarks that the containers holding this dangerous material in this liquid state “are 60 years closer to leaking” and possibly contaminating our critical Snake River Aquifer. An Integrated Waste Treatment Unit the DOE thought would be operational several years ago is still not doing the job.
At the other end of the argument is Mark Peters, the new INL research director, who said his lab already is being negatively affected. The government’s lead nuclear research lab is unable to do its research without the spent fuel. By saying no to accepting spent nuclear fuel shipments, Idaho and INL are missing out on potentially $200 million in economic impact.
Wasden and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter have equal authorities under the 1995 agreement. Otter was rebuffed by Wasden two years ago when the governor wanted to give the green light for 200 pounds of spent nuclear fuel to enter the state for research. That shipment was rerouted to a lab in Tennessee. The fate of another shipment is up in the air.
But we are hopeful.
▪ Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is the former governor of Texas. Otter knows him from their work together in the Western Governors’ Association. That connection led to a meeting between Otter and Perry last month in Washington. “When he came in and sat down, the lab is the first thing he wanted to talk about ... how the lab is so important to the United States and to the Department of Energy, and to the future of nuclear power,” Otter told the Statesman recently.
▪ A new cleanup contractor, Fluor, has taken a fresh look at the technical obstacles plaguing the IWTU facility — which is designed to turn that liquid waste into a a stable solid. It has completed its assessment stage and now is in a demonstration phase with some design fixes. Managers there have learned not to predict when the IWTU will be up and running, but Fluor is about to complete the first year of a five-year, $1.4 billion contract. Its leadership is confident it has the strategy and expertise to get the job done soon.
▪ All the players seem poised for progress. Wasden has made it clear that he has two directives: to enforce the 1995 agreement between Idaho and DOE, which has cleanup deadlines and restrictions on accepting different kinds and quantities of waste; and supporting the research mission, which means allowing in those spent fuel rods.
Wasden issued a statement this week, noting that discussions about getting the waste issue resolved are held up pending getting DOE senior officials appointed and confirmed. “I’m optimistic that once senior managers are in place, we can work with DOE to address the compliance issues,” Wasden said.
Though many in Idaho’s Legislature and congressional delegation have encouraged Wasden to separate INL’s missions of cleanup and research and let the research waste in, Wasden has been unwilling to let go of the leverage he and Idaho have.
The other side of that coin is worth considering: Refusing to allow the spent fuel into the state over the past several years has not made the nasty liquid waste any safer — and it could harm INL’s status as the DOE’s top nuclear research facility.
The new leaders and the elected officials in place have a duty to come together, set a goal of serving both missions and negotiate a path forward. Gov. Otter can leverage his connections with Perry, and Rep. Mike Simpson his role as chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee that funds INL, to get all the parties to the table.
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