Guest Opinions

DOE has legacy of broken promises on Idaho nuclear waste cleanup

Former Idaho Governors Cecil Andrus, right, and Phil Batt, left, talk to reporters in 2015 in Boise, Idaho. Andrus said that an arrangement between Idaho Gov. C.L. Butch Otter and the U.S. Department of Energy to bring in 50 spent nuclear fuel rods to the Idaho National Laboratory for research would turn the state into a nuclear waste repository. (AP)
Former Idaho Governors Cecil Andrus, right, and Phil Batt, left, talk to reporters in 2015 in Boise, Idaho. Andrus said that an arrangement between Idaho Gov. C.L. Butch Otter and the U.S. Department of Energy to bring in 50 spent nuclear fuel rods to the Idaho National Laboratory for research would turn the state into a nuclear waste repository. (AP) AP

It’s said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while hoping for different results. Those in denial about the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) decades of mismanagement of nuclear waste in Idaho have become the personification of that old truism.

Richard Holman, a retired Idaho National Laboratory manager, recently claimed in a June 4 Guest Opinion the DOE’s cleanup in Idaho has been an unqualified success, but that is just not true.

Here is the reality: DOE has never embraced cleanup at INL without being forced to do so, often in federal court. Since 1995, Idaho and the cleanup effort have benefited from its one-of-a-kind agreement — the Batt Agreement — establishing timelines and penalties to address what Mr. Holman terms “past practices that ended decades ago.”

He is correct that former Gov. Phil Batt and I have insisted for decades that DOE devote time, attention and money to cleaning up past messes, but Mr. Holman is surely incorrect in saying DOE’s recent broken promises and missed milestones are insignificant.

DOE currently has three significant problems directly affecting Idaho. Since February 2014, New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has been shuttered due to safety and operational concerns. As a result, waste intended for disposal at WIPP remains in Idaho, and WIPP may not accept waste for months or even years, directly violating DOE commitments to Idaho.

The most troublesome and dangerous waste issue at INL is 900,000 gallons of high-level liquid waste stored above the Snake River Aquifer. There is no end in sight to this problem despite what DOE cheerleaders say. This dangerous liquid is admittedly hard to handle, but DOE has repeatedly failed to create a workable treatment mechanism, which also violates commitments to Idaho. If you don’t believe this material is dangerous, just look at ongoing coverage of the problems with liquid waste at the Hanford facility in Washington state.

Finally, and of greatest importance, for generations the federal government has failed to develop a workable national strategy to permanently dispose of vast quantities of high-level commercial waste. Under the best case a permanent repository for this material — significant quantities are “temporarily” stored in Idaho — remains years into the future.

WIPP, liquid waste and a nonexistent strategy to deal with commercial waste are problems for Idaho and the nation. The fact that Gov. Batt and I have steadfastly resisted, along with Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, changes in the 1995 agreement that would allow more waste into the state should be understood simply for what it is: evidence of real concern about decades of DOE mismanagement and broken promises.

To Mr. Holman and others who soft-pedal DOE’s mismanagement, I simply point out that for 18 months I have sought public records about DOE’s long-term intentions for “research material” in Idaho. DOE has resisted release of information, preventing Idahoans from understanding what the federal government plans to do, and again a federal judge will be forced to rule on the department’s conduct.

INL will continue to be a vital state and national resource, but it does no good for anyone to ignore both old and new nuclear waste problems that continue to plague Idaho and the nation.

Cecil D. Andrus served as Idaho’s governor for more than 14 years and was secretary of the interior in the Carter administration.

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