INL nuke solution should start with frank, face-to-face discussions

Two of Idaho’s most reasonable and respected politicians are at opposite ends of a radioactive spectrum over whether to allow shipments of spent nuclear fuel rods into the state so research can commence at Idaho National Laboratory.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is not budging from his position to deny entry of nuclear material until the U.S. Department of Energy gets back on the nuclear waste cleanup schedule Idaho and the agency have agreed to. From the standpoint of safety, and taking into consideration the short-term memories of federal agencies that drag their feet on old promises and run swiftly to you with new ones, Wasden’s position is above reproach.

That’s because there are 900,000 gallons of liquid nuclear waste on the INL site that have been stored in stainless steel containers for decades. As far as we know, they are not leaking into the earth or leaching into the agricultural lifeblood of an Idaho aquifer. But in all likelihood, someday those tanks will leak.

Idaho has made good on its promise to store the stuff in an area that has some seismic risk, but the DOE has not made good on its promise to transform that liquid waste into a solid and less risky state. The $500 milion dollar Integrated Waste Treatment Unit the DOE is designing to do the job has faced a series of setbacks and is not operating.

Poll the right scientists and you could find someone who will tell you everything is OK and there is nothing to worry about. But worrying isn’t part of Wasden’s mission. Compliance with a contract between a state and its federal government is.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has spent a career cultivating the nuclear and other research missions at INL and working to appropriate the money in Congress to get it done. He sees all of his effort and all of Eastern Idaho’s economic promise at INL being threatened — and in a worst-case scenario, perhaps, even abandoned by an increasingly impatient DOE that could find a path of less resistance outside Idaho.

Though INL is the DOE’s premier nuclear research facility, that doesn’t mean a thing if they can’t bring in the 100- to 200-pound shipments of spent nuclear fuel rods to study. It would be expensive and time-consuming, but DOE could come up with a Plan B at one of its other labs. Simpson, and almost every other Eastern Idaho politician, dreads the thought of that happening.

Simpson’s fears are real. Idaho’s unwillingness to accept the fuel rods has resulted in the feds sending one shipment elsewhere — and considering options to send future shipments to other labs. Simpson argues that denying INL access to the nuclear material it needs does not make the existing nuclear waste in Idaho any safer. Why punish the lab for something it can’t control? Thus, Simpson wants Wasden to allow the shipments — and to trust that DOE will get its cleanup back on schedule.

Our problem is that this is never going to happen in the sniping, back-biting atmosphere we have today, wherein Gov. Butch Otter and legislators such as Sen. Bart Davis openly criticize Wasden’s INL stance and other aspects of his job. It’s time for all of these stakeholders to meet — especially with the DOE — and begin to build that bridge of trust Simpson envisions.

Some of the politicians in Eastern Idaho remind us of the Chamber of Commerce in the classic movie “Jaws.” They focus on the summer season success of Amity Island and seem blind to the sharks of reality.

Wasden is Idaho’s Chief Brody. Without his vigilance and resolve to call DOE into account, we don’t know who else would.

Perhaps it is time to discuss a “Trust, But Verify” approach — but the prospects for such negotiations will be better when Otter and others start speaking directly to Wasden instead of past him, and all parties work with the Energy Department.

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: Community member William Myers recused himself from participating in this discussion.