What the candidates for governor, AG say about nuclear waste in Idaho

The first shipment of radioactive waste prepares to leave the Idaho National Laboratory, on its way to New Mexico, after Idaho’s settlement with the federal government, in this April 28, 1999 photo.
The first shipment of radioactive waste prepares to leave the Idaho National Laboratory, on its way to New Mexico, after Idaho’s settlement with the federal government, in this April 28, 1999 photo.

The major-party candidates for Idaho governor and attorney general agree that a federal proposal to send nuclear waste from Washington to Idaho for treatment isn’t realistic, especially considering existing cleanup and shipment delays at the Idaho National Laboratory’s desert site.

In interviews, the candidates weighed in on several key nuclear waste and research issues related to the U.S. Department of Energy and INL, including the controversial proposal to move 7,000 cubic meters of transuranic nuclear waste to a specialized eastern Idaho facility for treatment. A recent poll found a majority of Idahoans favor accepting the waste to keep the facility going.

“To make a pipeline where waste from another area came in here, was processed, and was shipped out — I just don’t think it makes good sense,” said Republican Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who faces Democrat Paulette Jordan in the Nov. 6 general election. “There’s a lot of other things we can do at the lab.”

“My intent is to not take in any more nuclear waste until we are able to properly manage what we have already, and are able to ship [that waste] outside our state,” said Jordan, a former state representative.

Idaho politicians have for decades grappled with nuclear waste issues — how to balance pushing the federal government to clean up the toxic mess at the INL site while also maintaining a healthy research laboratory in the state. That challenge will continue for the next governor and attorney general, who will face a DOE out of compliance on several of its cleanup commitments under the 1995 Settlement Agreement, the document regulating federal radioactive waste cleanup in the Gem State.

They may also find themselves managing a renewed push to change or renegotiate the landmark cleanup agreement — a possibility that has nuclear watchdog group Snake River Alliance concerned — as well as plans to build a new type of nuclear reactor on the INL site.

“The problem is there’s a good chunk of eastern Idaho who make a living off of INL. We can’t ignore them,” said Bruce Bistline, a Democrat and Boise attorney challenging Republican Lawrence Wasden for attorney general. “But at the same time, it’s Western Idaho who drinks the water that will one day be undrinkable if we don’t get ahold of the management of that waste.”

Former Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican who negotiated the waste deal with federal officials, said the state’s next leader must be ready to learn about several complicated nuclear issues, and realize the federal government can be difficult to deal with. He added that no new waste should be accepted until DOE has met its current obligations to Idaho.

“I think we need to keep [the pressure] on them,” he said of the agency.

Accepting Hanford waste

As co-chairman of the state’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission, Little said he’s studied the federal proposal to bring waste into the state for treatment. “I just don’t believe it’s going to happen,” he said.

The idea is to send Cold War-era waste from the Hanford Site in Washington, and possibly other federal facilities, to eastern Idaho for treatment and repackaging. From there, the waste would be sent on for disposal at a New Mexico facility called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP.

The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, operated by federal contractor Fluor Idaho, has equipment for safely handling and packing the radioactive waste not found anywhere else in the country. The new work would allow the plant’s approximately 700 employees to stay on after their current job packing and shipping Idaho’s existing waste is done.

But the Idaho shipments have been delayed due to problems at the New Mexico repository. DOE is expected to miss a deadline under the Settlement Agreement to have 65,000 cubic meters of existing transuranic waste out of Idaho by the end of the year. And under the agreement, any outside waste that comes into the state for treatment must depart within one year.

So, to bring in even more waste before the current work is finished doesn’t make much sense, both Little and Jordan said. Both indicated other research and cleanup work at the site could employ many of the workers who are now based at the treatment facility.

“Hanford’s got to address their [own waste], and I don’t want them short-circuiting our ability to comply with our agreement to go to WIPP,” Little said.

Still, Idahoans appear to favor the idea of bringing in the Hanford waste if it allows the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project to stay open. Salt Lake City-based Dan Jones and Associates found 63 percent of 606 Idahoans polled this summer wanted to keep the facility going, even if that means taking in waste from Hanford.

A DOE spokeswoman did not respond to a request for an update on the shipment proposal.

“Idaho has done a pretty good job of removing waste from this state, and putting it in a permanent disposal site, so why we would we accept more of the same kind of waste?” said Beatrice Brailsford, of the Snake River Alliance. “It’s kind of crazy.”

Change the agreement?

Both Little and Jordan said they support the 1995 Settlement Agreement, but could be open to making changes with the DOE down the road. The agreement came under scrutiny in recent years after DOE missed deadlines to treat liquid radioactive waste. As a consequence, the lab was not able to receive key shipments of spent nuclear fuel for research.

Jordan said “holding our ground to our current agreement” with DOE is important. But, she said, she is also “very open to new ideas” for other solutions on how the state could enforce the federal government’s cleanup obligations.

Little said it was time “sooner rather than later” to update the agreement, while still maintaining its original intent of removing waste from Idaho and maintaining pressure on the federal government. An updated cleanup plan and timeframes are needed, he said, considering DOE has fallen behind on several treatment and shipment deadlines.

Bistline said he mostly takes the same positions as his competitor on the waste and settlement issues. He said he respected Wasden’s unpopular stance in recent years not to allow spent nuclear fuel shipments after the DOE violated its agreement with the state.

“I think [Wasden] has been holding the line on: ‘Stick to the agreement you’ve made,’” Bistline said. “And that’s basically what I’m saying.”

But the two differ slightly on whether they believe the Settlement Agreement should be tweaked at all going forward. Bistline says it shouldn’t. Wasden says there are changes that will need to be made for practical purposes — but that the heart of the agreement, linking cleanup and research at the lab, should remain in place.

Considering the DOE is out of compliance on several milestones, and will miss another key one at the end of the year, Wasden said state and federal officials will soon have to agree on a new set of deadlines that allows DOE to eventually get in compliance and ship waste out of the state.

“That doesn’t mean you give the store away, either,” Wasden said of DOE. “You just have to accept the factual reality, and create some other schedule. I cannot force them to do something that’s impossible.”

Brailsford said it was “short-sighted” to consider updating the agreement, adding it was unlikely Idaho could get a better deal than it already has.

New nuclear reactor

Both candidates say they are generally supportive of a plan to build a commercial nuclear reactor on the INL site — which would supply power to several small utilities around the West — despite some concerns over its water consumption and the waste it will generate.

The small modular reactor, to be completed by the mid-2020s, would be the first of its kind in the world. It is meant to be safer and more efficient than traditional large reactors.

“We are further along than anybody else” on developing a modular reactor, Little said of the project. “And it’s going to happen. Obviously the first one’s not going to make any money. That’s one of the roles of the federal government, to do cutting edge research.”

He added that he sees the technology complimenting efforts around the country and world to cut carbon emissions, backing up other sources of energy such as wind and solar. “All of those things combine together and lead me to think it’s really important that the [small modular reactor] research, development and deployment takes place out at Idaho National Lab,” he said.

Jordan said she also likes the idea of small modular reactors, and is excited about the prospect of building them in rural communities. But, she added, the waste and cost of nuclear continued to be key concerns.

“As it gets cleaner, [nuclear energy] presents an opportunity for Idaho and its citizens,” Jordan said. “It also presents an opportunity for Idaho to become a leader in the western region.”