The state of Idaho should stand tall while demanding that the Department of Energy honor its commitments to the people of Idaho.
While the Idaho National Laboratory may be an economic force in our state, the history of the site is plagued by the federal government’s irresponsible and shortsighted practices involving disposal of nuclear waste. These actions contaminated the air, the soil, and the Snake River Aquifer with radioactive materials that will remain hazardous until the end of fathomable time. Real people suffered. Decades of dumping and controversial plans to continue shipping nuclear waste from around the world into Idaho caused outrage among many of its citizens. Litigation led to the now-famous 1995 Settlement Agreement, which is hardly outdated — the deadlines have just recently starting to come due.
The 1995 Settlement Agreement represents a set of negotiated promises from the federal government to Idahoans — promises to clean up the nuclear waste it brought here, and promises to limit the importation of more. Enforcing the agreement is Idaho’s legal and moral obligation, and the people should not tolerate manipulative tactics and attempts to bully Idaho into abandoning it.
In general, INL has a robust cleanup program that has made significant progress, and the Snake River Alliance is among its strongest supporters. But the 900,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste sitting above our aquifer are proving to be much more troublesome than the government anticipated in 1995. Nuclear waste is never safe and never easy to manage.
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When the timelines for export were established, people thought there would be a national repository that would accept spent nuclear fuel from Idaho, other federal sites and commercial power plants. No such repository exists. Yucca Mountain is mired in political conflict and does not have the characteristics needed to be a safe and permanent storage facility. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico was the only facility designated to take plutonium-contaminated waste associated with nuclear weapons production, and it was shut down indefinitely in February 2014 because two accidents rendered it too dangerous to operate. There is nuclear waste in Idaho that has nowhere to go, and there is no realistic exit strategy for new waste that comes in.
Some argue that nuclear research should not be tied to the DOE’s performance on cleanup. But even though different contractors manage the cleanup program and the research arm of INL, these contractors are doing work for the Department of Energy, a federal agency using taxpayer dollars. The federal government must be held accountable in Idaho at all times.
Idaho’s role in the national nuclear waste and research strategy deserves more scrutiny. The proposed fuel rods contain some of the most radioactive material on earth. The industry and government have not determined how to “safely” handle and store waste that has a half-life longer than any human civilization has existed. Perhaps, instead of raising alarmist notions that Idaho’s economy depends on begging for nuclear waste imports, the DOE could first finish what it started with the waste we already have.
Idaho always has the right and the duty to try to balance the risks and rewards associated with the INL. A healthy dose of skepticism behooves anyone who is concerned about the long-term sustainability of Idaho’s natural resources, economy, and relationship with an agency that has time and again proven willing to leave Idaho holding the bag.
Kelsey Jae Nunez is the executive director of the Snake River Alliance.