Statesman Editorial: Idaho nuclear waste cleanup should be priority for Department of Energy

After considering the concerns and proposals to bring spent nuclear fuel into Idaho for research in light of the 1995 Settlement Agreement, and the overall nuclear energy mission of the Idaho National Laboratory in the last six months, we conclude the most pressing matter is for the Department of Energy to get its cleanup programs back on track.

With all due respect to the complicated national and international security matters that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has been attending to in recent months, his agency signed on to the settlement agreement 20 years ago with cleanup provisions that are not in compliance. The energy.gov website states the DOE is “committed to a safe, complete cleanup of the environmental legacy of five decades of government-sponsored nuclear weapons development and nuclear energy research. As part of this mission, we safely and cost-effectively transport and dispose of low-level wastes; decommission and decontaminate old facilities; remediate contaminated soil and groundwater; and secure and store nuclear material in stable, secure locations to protect national security.”

Though there are other cleanup issues, we believe the most critical INL one involves the failure to meet a Dec. 31, 2012, deadline to treat sodium-bearing liquid high-level waste. There is roughly 900,000 gallons of this still being stored at INL — some of it going on 60 years. The processing plant that would convert it from liquid to a powdery substance that could be stored safely is yet to be made operable. DOE is working on it.

Reports and updates on progress or promises to get this project up and running are not the same as actually doing it. The1995 agreement clearly states that Idaho’s sole remedy in light of DOE’s failure in cleanup matters is to suspend DOE spent fuel shipments to INL. The Idaho Attorney General’s office has no choice but to block any said shipments until cleanup resumes, and we support that stance.

We also support the state’s option to “waive performance by federal parties” when circumstances change. In other words, if DOE gets its equipment and process back in action to mitigate the dangerous liquid waste, there is a legal path for a conditional waiver and to allow new spent fuel roads back into the state for research in the lab. John Grossenbacher, director of INL, points out that the 200 pounds of spent fuel INL would like to bring in to Idaho over the next two years is not waste. “It is a small sampling of modern, commercial reactor fuel that has high research value.”

We would argue that the nation, INL and Idaho need this nuclear research to continue. INL is the country’s premiere nuclear energy research facility. To strip it of its mission makes no sense strategically or financially.

INL can not perform its research mission without the spent fuel it needs in hand to study it. We are thankful that former Govs. Cecil Andrus and especially Phil Batt — who shepherded the 1995 agreement — recently brought attention and a historic perspective to DOE’s non-compliance issues at INL. But we would expect they also could respect that same settlement provides for INL’s continued research and that means it can allow limited levels of spent fuel to be brought into the state.

In the meantime, we challenge Secretary Moniz to keep his agency’s commitments — commitments that go back even before the settlement agreement, all the way back to Dixy Lee Ray, director of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Resume the process of cleaning up, and then we can talk.

Statesman Editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.

Note: In the April 30 Statesman Editorial about the special session to resolve the child support bill, a sentence misused the word anti-federalist. It should have said anti-federal.