Guest Opinions

‘Interim storage’ of nuclear waste no real solution for Idaho

Tami Thatcher
Tami Thatcher

In the face of Nevada’s adamant opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository for spent nuclear fuel and the lack of needed land and water rights, in 2015 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission declined to issue a construction permit for the disposal facility. Even if construction were to begin, working through the mountain of legal opposition would take years.

So, the Department of Energy is beginning to develop a consent-based approach for siting interim and permanent disposal facilities for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high level waste. This year the department held meetings around the country, including one in Boise. The public input has now been summarized online .

The DOE’s strategy is to build one or several pilot interim storage and consolidated interim storage facilities and at least two permanent disposal facilities for the waste, one for commercial spent nuclear fuel and one for defense waste.

The majority of spent nuclear fuel in the United States is from commercial electricity generation at nuclear power plants, enough for two Yucca Mountain repositories.

The rest of the spent nuclear fuel is from DOE research and defense reactors, including spent fuel from nuclear submarines and carriers that is stored in Idaho. The DOE’s high-level waste is in various forms ranging from liquid waste at Hanford awaiting vitrification, highly soluble powder-like calcine at Idaho and vitrified waste at other sites.

A “pilot” interim storage facility could help the Energy Department cope with its most pressing legal liabilities at commercial nuclear power plants, but could make it easier for the federal government to weasel out of the 1995 settlement agreement stipulating that naval spent nuclear fuel stored in Idaho be among the first fuel shipped to an interim facility.

The DOE has continued to tout deep bedrock boreholes as a potential option for high-level waste disposal, including Idaho’s calcine waste. This year, both states slated for borehole research — North and South Dakota — refused to allow the research to be conducted, fearing it would lead to nuclear waste disposal in their states.

Idaho remains the de facto storage site for roughly 325 metric tons uranium of spent nuclear fuel and high level waste including seismically vulnerable calcine. Despite the Idaho Settlement Agreement’s scheduled dates for removal, a defense repository for this waste has yet to be identified.

Idaho’s leaders are assured that it would be better to delay repackaging the calcine stored over our aquifer in containers known to be seismically weak because it is not nearly the travesty of the leaking liquid waste at Hanford and money would be better spent on research instead.

Idahoans need to stop being fooled and demand that the calcine be repackaged into containers less likely to allow the calcine to be blowing in the wind or leaching into the aquifer. And also demand that real progress be made toward permanent spent nuclear fuel and high level waste disposal, not just the illusion of progress that obtaining interim or “pilot” interim storage may offer.

Tami Thatcher is a former nuclear safety analyst at the Idaho National Laboratory and is now a nuclear safety consultant. environmental-defense-