Letters from the West

Idaho Lab turns minor waste pact change into $25 million in programs

The Idaho National Laboratory has turned a minor change in Idaho’s 1995 nuclear waste agreement into $25 million in new programs at a time when federal research money is tight.

INL Director John Grossenbacher told the Idaho Statesman editorial board that the minor change, made in a memorandum of agreement approved by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in 2011, which allows up to 880 pounds of spent nuclear fuel to be brought into the state for research, has allowed a research program to examine 25 fuel rods in partnership with the South Korean government for $15 million a year indefinitely.

A second program will examine spent nuclear fuel rods, the uranium fuel pulled from commercial nuclear reactors, under a new program that keeps them in reactors longer. They hope to begin the program to see how these fuel rods behave inside a dry storage cask in 2016, bringing another $10 million annually.

The 890-square mile test site, where the technology for the commercial nuclear industry was developed, still has facilities available nowhere else in the world. And with the spent fuel certain to be stored for several more decades in dry casks above ground, since the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site has been scrapped, Idaho has more opportunity, Grossenbacher said.

In the next few years the federal government is going to need to do a longer term demonstration project that shows how of the “high burn” nuclear fuel, which was left longer in rectors, behaves after it was first placed in underwater storage and now is stored in dry casks. The INL, with its unique nuclear research and handling facilities and its huge security force is likely the best place for such a demonstration.

“We’re going to have to take that fuel out of the casks and look at it,” Grossenbacher explained.

It could mean hundreds of millions of research dollars. But for this mission, the INL would need to bring 30 tons of nuclear waste to Idaho. The 1995 agreement wouldn’t allow it. And in the last couple of years the opposition by Idaho Governors Phil Batt, who negotiated the agreement, and Cecil Andrus who set the table for it, have kept Otter from seeking to rewrite it.

For that to change Idaho is going to have to have a major conversation on the subject.

“Is it a this-year issue? Is it a next-year issue or the year after that?” Grossenbacher said.

Liz Woodruff executive director of he Snake River Alliance agrees we ought to have a conversation if they are expecting to change it. She’s just not for changing the agreement.

The Department of Energy is facing a year-end deadline for treating sodium-containing waste stored on the lab  and the plant they built to do it isn't open yet. And another DOE contractor has stopped shipments of low-level, long lived waste to a permanent facility that is temporarily closed near Carlsbad, N.M., which will make it hard to meet its 2018 deadline.

Federal officials have said without Yucca the chance the state will meet its 2035 deadline for removal of all waste is nearly zero. That leaves 300 tons of waste in Idaho.

“The idea that because some of the deadlines related to the 1995 agreement are not being met does not mean the key protections the state of Idaho has from the agreement should be changed,” Woodruff said.