State Politics

Orval Hansen, congressman who helped give Idaho a nuclear lab, dies at 91

Orval Hansen and his son, Jim Hansen, during a camping trip in the Sawtooths in August 1973.
Orval Hansen and his son, Jim Hansen, during a camping trip in the Sawtooths in August 1973.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Orval Hansen represented Idaho’s 2nd District for only six years beginning in 1969.

But they were six key years, shaping the future of this state’s nuclear research laboratory, preserving a key section of Idaho’s public lands and including the resignation of a president.

Hansen, 91, died Thursday evening of complications from cancer, surrounded by his family in his Boise home. He leaves behind a sizable Idaho legacy through that service and his other work in law, public policy and advocacy.

He was a critical supporter of what in the 1960s was known as the National Reactor Testing Station in Eastern Idaho. Hansen convinced then-Atomic Energy Commission Chairwoman Dixie Lee Ray to change the name to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and pushed for increased funding that elevated the site to the level of Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence-Livermore and others. Today it is simply the Idaho National Laboratory.

“Congressman Hansen’s vision allowed for eventual creation of the nation’s lead nuclear energy research and development laboratory,” said Mark Peters, INL director. “INL’s status as a world leader in clean energy R&D and critical infrastructure protection can be traced back to Orval Hansen’s successful efforts more than four decades ago.”

Gov. Butch Otter ordered all flags on public buildings to be flown at half-staff until the day of Hansen’s internment, which has not been determined. Services will be announced soon, his family said.

Orval Hansen.

Hansen was part of a bipartisan team of Idaho lawmakers in the 1960s and ’70s — also including Democratic Sen. Frank Church — who might have differed on some philosophical issues but made a point of cooperating on the big problems of the day.

The group’s achievements included the law creating the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, a unique compromise that preserved the Sawtooth and Stanley valleys from development.

“There was rapport in those days,” Hansen told the Statesman in 1992. “Everybody loved (former Sen.) Len Jordan. I had known Frank, and (then-Rep.) Jim McClure and I were in college together. Those personal relationships helped smooth over any differences.”

His time in Congress also included the last days of the Nixon administration. In 2006, after the death of former President Gerald Ford, Hansen recalled arranging a 1974 trip for Ford to speak at the renaming of the lab. The pair then planned to drive up to the World’s Fair in Spokane, Wash., even taking the time to test their route in a dry run. “The next day, (President Richard) Nixon resigned, and Ford was the president,” Hansen told the Statesman. “So that was all off.”

Born in Firth in August 1926, Hansen graduated from the Idaho Falls public school system and served in the Navy from 1944-46, according to his official congressional bio. He also was in the Air Force Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

Hansen attended the University of Idaho, receiving a bachelor’s degree in speech in 1950, according to the university. Over time he also earned law and political science degrees from George Washington University and studied abroad at the London School of Economics.

Hansen met and married the former June Duncan, an actress from Southport, England, while studying in South Africa in 1955. They had seven children.

He served four terms in the Idaho House and one in the Idaho Senate before he was elected to Congress. He initiated legislation to create the Idaho Legislative Council and was appointed as one of its first members. He championed a successful change from biennial to annual legislative sessions. He worked closely with Republican Gov. Robert Smylie to form the Idaho State Parks department and dramatically improve funding for public education.

Former National Guard Adjutant Gen. Darrell Manning, then a Democrat, served in the Legislature and the Air Force Reserve with Hansen. They worked on many bills together, including the first sales tax, which was critical for education spending in the state.

“That was in the days we all worked together for the right things for the state,” Manning said.

Manning ran against Hansen in the 1968 congressional race as a Democrat. Even then, they carpooled to Air Force Reserve meetings.

“I won,” Manning joked. “I got to stay in Idaho and he had to go to Washington, D.C.”

orval hansen 2
Idaho’s congressional delegation together in a photo dated sometime in 1973-75. From left: Sen. Frank Church, Rep. Orval Hansen, Rep. Steve Symms, Sen. Jim McClure. Provided by Frank Church Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Boise State University Library

Around his political career, Hansen worked as a lawyer in Idaho and Washington, D.C., and served on several nonprofit boards, including for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. During his time in Congress, he also played a key role in early campaign finance reform.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo served as an intern in Hansen’s office when he was in college in the 1970s. That experience spurred Crapo toward public service, the Idaho Republican said Friday.

“(Hansen) was a strong leader and represented Idaho well during his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, whether it was helping shape the growth of what became the Idaho National Laboratory, or preserving our heritage and work on our public lands,” Crapo said.

Hansen lost the 1974 Republican primary to George Hansen (no relation). After leaving Congress, he moved to the D.C. area to join a law firm that lobbied Congress and the executive branch on behalf of companies ranging from Morrison Knudsen and Boise Cascade to Westinghouse and General Atomics.

In 1979, Hansen expanded a public survey business he created into the Columbia Institute for Political Research, which organized 250 policy and economic conferences in all 50 states over the next 25 years. These conferences attracted elected officials, CEOS of some the largest companies, economists, scientists and even world leaders like the late Shimon Peres, former prime minister for Israel. Topics included health care, energy, democracy and other wide-ranging issues. The institute closed in 2000.

In 1997, he joined with Bethine Church, Frank Church’s widow; McClure; and Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus to found the Sawtooth Society. The nonprofit was created to help preserve remaining unprotected areas around the SNRA through scenic easements.

His family has been extensively involved in politics, including brothers M. Reed Hansen and John Hansen, who both served in the Legislature. His son, Jim Hansen, also spent time as a state representative, challenged U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in 2006, was executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party. He now serves on the Ada County Highway District board.

The Idaho National Laboratory will get the Curious Idaho treatment because our readers asked for it. We will explore the past of the nation’s lead nuclear-energy research lab and its future. This historic shot of U.S. Rep. Orval Hansen and members of the Joint Atomic Energy Committee on a tour of the site was taken in the early 1970s. DOE photo

In 1993 Hansen helped direct a conference on the future of the INL, at that point facing defense spending cutbacks and at the center of arguments over federal nuclear waste brought into the state to be stored there.

He was on the University of Idaho Foundation Board in the early 2000s when the University Place scandal occurred, and was among the foundation directors sued by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in the wake of it. Investigators concluded that in 2001 and 2003, the foundation “likely” breached its duty under state law when it directed $18 million in U of I’s Consolidated Investment Trust (CIT) to the foundation-sponsored University Place campus development in Downtown Boise.

Hansen eventually moved to Boise. He wrote several letters and guest opinions for the Statesman in recent years, touching on term limits, public lands and current Rep. Mike Simpson’s “Hike with Mike” fitness initiative.

Just last year, Hansen published his memoirs, “Climb the Mountains,” focused on his love for mountain climbing around the world, his marathon running into his 70s and other accomplishments. He also wrote “Congressional Operations: The Role of Mail in Decision Making in Congress,” in 1987 with Ellen Miller.

Nate Poppino: 208-377-6481, @npoppino

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Idaho reacts

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter: “Orval Hansen was an important member of a generation of Idaho leaders who didn’t let partisanship or ideology stand in the way of crafting reasonable, responsible and practical public policy. ... Miss Lori and I offer our condolences and prayers for Congressman Hansen’s family.”

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo: “Representative Hansen demonstrated a high standard of service to the people of Idaho, and I join with all of Idaho in sending comfort and peace to his family at this challenging time. He was a strong leader and represented Idaho well during his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, whether it was helping shape the growth of what became the Idaho National Laboratory, or preserving our heritage and work on our public lands. His legacy will be fondly remembered here in Idaho.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson: “Kathy and I are saddened to hear of the passing of Congressman Hansen. He saw the potential that existed in our state for world-class nuclear energy research and because of that vision, Idaho National Laboratory is a respected leader in energy research. We are greatly indebted to Congressman Hansen for his service to Idaho and our nation.”

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador: “Congressman Hansen made lasting contributions to Idaho and the nation, as a veteran, an Idaho legislator and member of Congress. Becca and I have the Hansen family in our thoughts and prayers.”