Editorial: Common goals a must on INL, nuclear waste agreement

We are wondering whether the smoky skies and prevailing political winds are getting to some of the federal, state and local stakeholders involved in the controversial matter of spent nuclear fuel rods being allowed to come to the Idaho National Laboratory for research.

Folks at the Idaho Department of Commerce and in the mayor’s office in Idaho Falls seem to have their vision obscured by the haze of federal promises about jobs and new economies and thriving laboratories — a great goal, but one that should not sidestep legal agreements about the cleanup of nuclear waste that lives in Idaho and has no place else to go.

The Department of Energy is fanning some additional atmospheric interference our way with new, abrupt deadlines for a waiver — when it hasn’t kept its own deadline of treating a certain kind of waste — and threats to send work to other national labs instead of Idaho.

Time out. The issue here is not about whether bringing spent fuel rods into Idaho is the proper mission of INL, but rather when it is proper. The DOE has an agreement with the state of Idaho that says it will be appropriate when INL gets a troubled Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) up and running.

Because it is not ready to use, INL missed 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 more safely may not come online until sometime in 2016. The only recourse for state officials sworn to make sure agreements are honored is to refuse to allow the spent fuel rods into the state until cleanup is underway.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has no choice but to withhold entry of those fuel rods until the DOE does what it promised to Idahoans in the 1995 Settlement Agreement — not to mention the commitment it pledges to all Americans at energy.gov.: “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.”

Moves to unlink the research and cleanup missions at INL may be a good idea — but not before the cleanup gets back on track. Just because other national labs do not have similar links and Idaho is under threat of losing research work to such labs, that is no reason to relieve DOE of its responsibility in the agreement. Wasden and Jeff Sayer — who sits on Gov. Butch Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission — were to be in discussion this week about a way forward.

Sayer and Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper have expressed concerns about the economic repercussions if spent fuel research bypasses INL — which is supposed to be the lead lab for such matters — because of an impasse over the settlement agreement.

In a Guest Opinion published in the Statesman, Casper wrote: “Idaho’s outdated settlement intertwines these missions and thereby hinders the blossoming of a robust, tech-based economy in Idaho.”

Idahoans with any stake in this matter should find the common goals and get behind Wasden to keep the pressure on the DOE until cleanup commences. If this is an “outdated settlement,” what leverage will we have to update it and keep DOE on task if we give away our negotiating strength before we even get started?

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.