Guest Opinions

Idaho’s nuclear waste settlement shields us from storage risks. We can’t throw it out.

Beatrice Brailsford.
Beatrice Brailsford.

The 1995 Nuclear Waste Settlement Agreement put an end to Idaho’s 40 years as a default nuclear waste dump. That may change soon.

Since at least 2010, nuclear proponents have pushed the governor and other receptive politicians to weaken the agreement. Increasingly, they seem to want to toss out the whole thing. That would be a mistake.

The value of the Settlement Agreement is enormous. It protects Idaho from the ever-growing piles of spent fuel at nuclear power plants across the country. It requires that the Department of Energy move nuclear waste out of the state (and/or store it more safely) and clean up pollution threatening the Snake River Aquifer. It regulates when and for how long nuclear waste can come into the state and includes an outright ban on commercial spent fuel.

Idaho needs those protections. For decades, the Idaho National Laboratory operated without any kind of outside control. The result was that accidental and intentional activities at the site caused serious harm to Idaho’s land and water. People who worked there were sickened and killed.

But since 1995 — through seven secretaries of energy and ever-changing contractors, plans and promises — the Settlement Agreement has provided Idaho accountability and responsiveness from the DOE.

The Settlement Agreement doesn’t make the waste at INL any less dangerous or difficult to manage. INL missed the 2012 deadline for getting liquid high-level waste out of buried tanks because the facility to do so hasn’t worked. The deadline to ship plutonium-contaminated weapons waste will be missed because of accidents at WIPP in New Mexico. More than 3,700 cubic meters of waste is ready for shipment to a facility that will take a long time to accept that much.

The Settlement Agreement does allow nuclear waste to come from other places to be treated here. But it doesn’t allow that waste to accumulate. Waste must be treated within six months and shipped back out within six months so that Idaho does not become a default dump again.

Idaho should never allow INL to become a permanent transit facility for nuclear waste simply because there is nowhere else to send it. But the pressure to do just that is growing. DOE’s Hanford facility in Washington state has 27,000 cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste that needs treatment before it can go to WIPP.

Some in eastern Idaho want the Hanford waste to come to Idaho, sit here until it’s treated and then sit here again for the years it would take to get it to WIPP. A lot can go wrong in that scenario.

Many INL supporters in eastern Idaho seem to regard the 1995 Settlement Agreement as a burden if not a bludgeon. They seem to think the Lab is being unfairly punished if additional nuclear material isn’t allowed here.

It’s more accurate to see the Settlement Agreement as a shield and a tool the state can use to help balance and regulate the risk INL will always pose. The 1995 Settlement Agreement helps protect us all.

Beatrice Brailsford is with the Snake River Alliance, Idaho’s grass-roots nuclear watchdog and clean energy advocate, She lives and works in Pocatello.