“Houston, we have a problem.” Although engineers and workers at the Idaho National Laboratory in Southeast Idaho have always tried to handle nuclear material safely, it doesn’t always work. Since 2005, accidents and inadvertent releases have happened with alarming regularity. In 2012, Department of Energy investigators told the Snake River Alliance that they had significant concerns and that INL was not handling plutonium safely.
Although the DOE has failed to meet countless deadlines to clean up what is already here, new proposals to import spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants have swept safety concerns under the rug. DOE’s reputation for missed deadlines once led former Gov. Cecil Andrus to compare the agency to the Boise used car dealership “Fairly Reliable Bob’s.”
The most current missed deadline is that the DOE has failed to treat 900,000 gallons of intensely radioactive liquid waste stored at INL. Recent failures at the plant have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns and the system may never work.
In the meantime, this extremely dangerous waste is stored in buried tanks decades old. INL’s tanks have never leaked, as far as we know, but the pipes and valves connecting them have. The waste from those leaks may never be cleaned up and may always be in our soil and groundwater.
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The McClatchy News Agency, parent company of the Idaho Statesman, recently reported that there have been nearly 400 nuclear-related deaths associated with the INL. Far more people have been sickened by their work there.
Twenty-five years ago, a Magic Valley fish farmer raised the alarm about plutonium shipments from Colorado to be buried on top of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. The public was outraged. Former Gov. Andrus stepped up and Gov. Phil Batt forged a nuclear waste agreement with the DOE banning future imports of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants until specific timetables for clean up were met.
Today, the Byron nuclear waste proposed to come to INL falls under this ban. It is being stored safely in Indiana and it is unfathomable why Idaho would sign a “waiver” to allow the feds to bring it here and put Idahoans at risk.
Our land and water will continue to be contaminated until our political leaders put the health and safety of Idahoans ahead of DOE’s broken promises. There is still plutonium buried above the Snake River Aquifer, perhaps till the end of time. Let’s not forget.
Idahoans shouldn’t become lab animals for nuclear malfunction. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is doing the right thing forcing the DOE to follow its own deadlines. Without a permanent national repository for nuclear waste, what comes to Idaho will stay here for decades, if not forever. Idahoans should stand together and tell the federal government to focus on INL’s existing nuclear experiment — cleaning up what is already here.
Wendy Wilson is interim executive director of the Snake River Alliance, Idaho’s nuclear watchdog and advocate for clean energy, found at www.snakeriveralliance.org.