For months I have watched with growing concern as some former Idaho governors and the attorney general have quibbled over the future of nuclear research in Idaho. There is nothing positive about this power struggle. While they talk, Idaho’s National Laboratory is put at risk. I can only conclude that they do not understand. Perhaps Eastern Idaho can lend some perspective.
The proposed spent-fuel research would be conducted by the Idaho National Laboratory, a first-rate national laboratory that attracts the best and brightest researchers, scientists and engineers from around the world. This research involves examining a small quantity of spent nuclear fuel.
Research on spent fuel samples could mean up to $20 million annually for the Idaho economy. Here is reality: If this research is not conducted at INL, it will be conducted somewhere else, likely at a lab in Oak Ridge, Tenn. That is a lot of jobs and economic activity we may never see.
More significantly, conducting the research here at the nation’s “Lead Nuclear Lab” would cement the status of INL, and Idaho, as an international leadership hub for clean energy technology. Sending the research elsewhere places our lab’s leadership role at risk. It would be naive to think that other laboratories throughout this nation don’t covet our title of “Lead” Nuclear Lab. It would be foolish to forfeit this asset.
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Some argue not to allow this fuel into Idaho. They’ve employed decades-old arguments once successfully used to encourage rigorous cleanup of nuclear waste in the 1990s. But to be clear: today’s discussion is not about storage; it is about research. The small amount of spent fuel needed to conduct the research is not waste. It is educational material. No one intends to store it; they intend to study it.
An emphasis on waste in this discussion fundamentally misunderstands INL’s research role and truly undervalues it. Cold-war-era waste cleanup and present-day laboratory research are vastly different. INL’s research mission was firmly established when DOE separated INL from cleanup in 2005. To move forward, Idaho must follow the lead of other labs like PNNL, which runs its operations separately from Hanford. PNNL’s research is not intertwined with the cleanup milestones of Hanford. Likewise, we should let INL flourish responsibly and formally delink INL’s research mission from the site’s cleanup responsibilities. Idaho’s outdated settlement intertwines these missions and thereby hinders the blossoming of a robust, tech-based economy in Idaho.
Perhaps some don’t understand that all kinds of energy technologies are researched at the Lab — biomass, wind, batteries, geothermal, etc. Perhaps they don’t understand that the lab’s research mission will encourage the responsible stewardship of our environment and natural resources. Maybe they do not see how Idaho will benefit from more well-paying careers. Perhaps they do not appreciate the significance of global energy leadership.
The clock is ticking. Idaho officials know that the DOE must make a decision about the research within the next 30 days. Now is the time for informed state leaders to rise above the politics and say “Yes” to this vital research. “Yes” to clean energy research funding. “Yes” to strengthening our role as a global energy innovation hub. “Yes” to powering Idaho’s future.
Rebecca Casper is the mayor of Idaho Falls and a member of the LINE2.0 Commission.