Most Idahoans know that since January, former Gov. Phil Batt and I have been raising questions about a plan by the U.S. Department of Energy to bring additional shipments of commercial spent nuclear fuel to the Idaho National Laboratory for “research.”
Our opposition to these shipments involves several concerns, including, most importantly, that the DOE action violates the historic agreement Gov. Batt negotiated with the feds in 1995 that specifically prohibits commercial spent fuel from coming to Idaho. We also object to the fact that DOE still has no permanent disposal site for this material, which effectively means once it’s here, it will stay here for a very long time. The fact that DOE has also missed key milestones to treat highly radioactive liquid waste at INL further complicates the picture.
When I first learned of DOE’s plans to bring additional spent fuel to Idaho back in January, I started to gather information and ask questions. It seemed a logical step to request under the Freedom of Information Act copies of correspondence, internal memos, etc. that I felt certain would shed light on just what the federal government has planned for Idaho. My odyssey in search of those documents has been both eye-opening and disturbing. The fact that the federal government has refused to release information pertaining to its internal planning and how Idaho fits into its plans should raise red flags for the state and its citizens.
After taking months to respond to my request for information and finally producing page after page of redacted documents, I appealed the decision to stonewall on public information. Perhaps not surprisingly, DOE rejected my appeal, recently saying that releasing information about its plans in Idaho would “cause the harm of chilling open and frank discussion, limit government personnel’s range of options ... and detract from the quality of Agency decisions.” DOE simply decided the release of the information I requested and would have shared with Idahoans “would not be in the public interest.”
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But wait just a minute. It is hardly the job of a bureaucrat sitting in office in the Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C., to decide what information about nuclear waste management in Idaho is “in the public interest.” What about our interest regarding what goes on within the borders of our state? A careful reading of DOE’s rationale shows that the department wants to consider waste options in secret without involving or in any way consulting Idahoans, and then tell us what it has decided. I can guarantee that public knowledge of DOE’s “open and frank discussions” about its “options” would be “chilled” by public awareness in Idaho.
The Department of Energy’s culture of secrecy was, I believe, born during World War II, when nuclear weapons were first developed and secrecy during wartime was a paramount consideration. But the agency never adapted, as the current situation in Idaho demonstrates, to a culture of transparency and engagement that engenders trust and confidence — and, when warranted, public acceptance.
I’m left to conclude that the agency does have plans for Idaho that likely would not pass muster in the sunlight. We do know that DOE has briefed the LINE Commission on the possibility of future “research” at INL involving more than 20 metric tons of spent fuel. What else do they have in mind? They’re not saying.
Some DOE apologists have attempted to make this dispute about whether Idahoans “support the INL,” but that is not the issue. The issues Gov. Batt and I have focused on are bigger and ultimately much more important: What ultimately happens to the significant quantities of nuclear waste already in Idaho? What is DOE’s plan to honor commitments already made? What happens if we agree to take even more waste?
DOE owes all of us a real discussion about those questions — followed by real answers.
Cecil D. Andrus was elected governor of Idaho four times: 1970, 1974, 1986 and 1990. He also served as U.S. Interior secretary.