Guest Opinions

Idaho and DOE must continue to abide by their joint 1995 agreement

After our victory over Japan in World War II using nuclear bombs, several countries, including Russia, built fearsome nuclear reserves, but thankfully no entity has used them yet.

In the meantime, several installations used to construct nuclear facilities, including Hanford, Wash., and the Idaho National Laboratory, INL, near Idaho Falls were built. They served us well. The first practical electric generator using nuclear power was built at INL.

Unfortunately, a lot of debris was generated at those sites, some dangerously nuclear and most having no nuclear impact, but still needed to be contained and stored. Some was sent to INL, such as debris from an accident site in the eastern U.S. known as Three-Mile Island.

A lot of inspection and attention was directed to those sites, in particular at INL. The Snake River aquifer ran under it and was possibly subject to earthquakes. Contamination could not be tolerated as Idaho agriculture would be doomed if a nuclear mixture occurred. Most Idahoans were determined to eliminate any threat to our aquifer.

Spokesmen such as the late Sens. Frank Church and Jim McClure, as well as others, railed outrageous protest on the conditions of the exposed material next to Idaho Falls.

Gov. Cecil Andrus adopted a much more direct approach. He prohibited access to the train tracks and prevented further dumping of radioactive and support material. He went out of office leaving eight spent naval fuel rods where they had always been stored. I was in my first weeks of serving as Idaho governor at this time. I had no choice but to deal with the problem.

A Navy admiral came to Idaho and said the disruption would soon put submarines on idle and cause sailors to get home on leave later than usual. In general, the entire Navy operation could be scuttled.

I succumbed to their pleading and opened the tracks. A recall movement was initiated against me. I tried to initiate settlement with the U.S. Government regarding a total cleanup at INL. After several months of negotiations an agreement was reached. I was grateful to Sen. McClure, Kathleen Trever, Clive Strong and various others for giving me a chance to achieve a cleanup plan. The plan was contested on the ballot. I went out and sold my plan. We garnered over 60 percent of the vote and my agreement became our official position.

It should be noted that our federal government deeply regretted agreeing to the Idaho plan and would never bind to another. We created a comprehensive cleanup site. TRU waste (material contaminated with transuranic waste), which was so designated, was sent to New Mexico. Thousands of shipments of this waste went on for several years.

Although most of the TRU waste is ready to ship, an accident forced the closure of the New Mexico storage facility. While the date for the re-opening is uncertain, we believe that the New Mexico facility will take on the entire TRU waste. I believe that the TRU shipments to New Mexico will resume when their repairs are in place. They are still trying, and I believe the problem can be solved.

I applaud the Department of Energy’s efforts to clean up INL. DOE has made considerable progress in meeting the milestones set forth in the agreement, yet it has failed to meet the milestone for cleaning up the high-level liquid sodium-bearing waste, the most dangerous waste remaining at the site.

It is the most difficult to handle, and reducing it to a powder has not been solved at this time. More than a billion dollars has been spent on solving this problem and they are four years behind schedule.

In the meantime, we shouldn’t accept new shipments of spent nuclear fuel until the liquid waste violation is resolved even though the research on spent fuel is the top priority of INL Laboratory.

My 1995 agreement was a godsend for Idaho, has furnished great employment at INL and has accomplished most of the cleanup of the original problems.

INL is in the best shape of DOE’s facilities in the country; nevertheless, I cannot favor receiving additional spent fuel in violation of our agreement. To submit to additional spent fuel would undermine the agreement that protects all Idahoans.

Philip E. Batt served as Idaho governor from 1995 to 1999.