Despite the 1995 agreement created by former Idaho Governor Phil Batt that restricted nuclear waste movements into the state, current Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter formally agreed to support a U.S. Department of Energy plan to allow radioactive material into the state for testing and disposal at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), starting this summer. But a number of political and environmental factors are causing concern, including the INL’s location directly above the Snake River aquifer, which stretches from the western edge of Yellowstone to the Idaho-Oregon border at Hell’s Canyon and provides irrigation water to approximately 3 million acres of farmland, according to the US Geological Survey.
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Otter’s January 8 agreement, made in consultation with Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, could bring a total of 50 spent nuclear rods to the INL for research purposes as part of a set of conditional waivers made in 2004 and 2011 that allowed for case-by-case exemptions to the 1995 agreement.
In 2004, under former Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne, the first waiver allowed the DOE to ship commercial spent nuclear fuel (SNF) into Idaho from the North Anna Power Plant for research purposes, with the condition that it be transferred out of the state within a strict 5-year deadline. The 2011 memorandum contains a more comprehensive waiver signed by Otter that allows the INL to receive annual shipments of nuclear waste for treatment and disposal on the condition that it not exceed 400 kg of heavy metal per year, and that it be removed from Idaho by the original deadline established in the 1995 agreement. Batt’s aim was for Idaho to become nuclear waste free by 2035.
While the proposed DOE shipments would bring in approximately $10 – 20 million annually in revenue for the laboratory over the next five years, according to DOE Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, the environmental detriment of such storage could far outweigh the monetary gains if it were to leach into Idaho’s municipal and irrigation groundwater, though there is limited long-term research available on the topic.
Despite a January 15 press conference with Batt and former governor Cecil Andrus, at which the former governors denounced Otter’s agreement to host more waste, much of the public still remains in the dark about Otter’s decision and what it could mean for Idaho’s natural resources and the state’s future as an interim nuclear storage site.
See the Idaho Statesman’s video of the Batt/Andrus press conference here.
The agreement to allow further toxic radioactive waste to enter Idaho also overlaps a temporary ruling made during the 2014 legislative session that “revised the definition of ‘restricted hazardous waste’ in Section 39-4403 [of the Idaho Code].” The amended rule provides additional exceptions that have the potential to apply to Batt’s landmark 1995 agreement based on definitions of waste “not regulated” under the 1954 federal Atomic Energy Act (AEA). In addition, the temporary DEQ ruling would also allow several federal agencies to store waste at a disposal site in Grand View, increasing the total amount of waste this amendment could allow into Idaho for storage.
If formally approved in the current legislative session, the DEQ amendment would bring in “a conferred tipping fee,” or a stipend of $100,000 for Idaho’s general fund, which is currently allotted to be spent primarily on maintaining the roads that lead to the Grand View storage site.
The nuclear research deal, which is yet to be finalized, was made following Otter’s January 12 State of the State address, during which no specific mention of the DOE waiver or the DEQ amendment was made. However, the temporary ruling, which has been labeled by the DEQ as a means of achieving “environmentally protective, secure disposal,” became effective in December 2014 and is scheduled to become a permanent ruling if approved by the 2015 Idaho Legislature.
What could the DEQ’s rule change mean for Idaho? Read a 2012 California Watch investigation.
Currently, the nuclear debate is complicated by a myriad of public agencies, each taking into consideration the fact that the INL has not been fully compliant with portions of the 1995 agreement. The Department of Energy was supposed to ship out a portion of the INL’s treated plutonium waste by Dec. 31, 2012 – a deadline which was not met, and was extended in both 2013 and 2014 due in part to complications at the New Mexico repository site. This means that until they clean up existing waste materials at the facility in order to abide by their contract, the INL will lose out on the monetary benefits, and delivery of the spent rods — scheduled to arrive this summer and early next year. Unless, of course, an exception is made.
Attorney General Wasden is encouraging the DOE to clean up the INL facility immediately, as he says he is committed to enforcing compliance of the original 1995 agreement even as the state prepares to move forward with the temporary waiver. According to Governor Batt, Wasden has stated that the waiver will give the INL “more incentive to complete the high-level abatement plan,” but Batt openly labeled the move as a mistake during the January press conference: “If we want to be a receptor of nuclear waste, we must take it up with the people. It’s their agreement.”
Fueling the controversy is additional EPA research which has shown that high-level waste (HLW) nuclear compounds can still pose risks even with closely monitored modern treatment and shipment practices. Additionally, despite the utmost caution, major concerns remain about the integrity of treatment practices used to neutralize the materials, in particular the toxicity levels of the water used to initially cool the waste, the amount of storage space required to hold radioactive material chambers, and a decay rate that ranges in the thousands of years, depending on the waste type and concentration. The proposed fuel rod shipments would total approximately 100 kg (220 lbs) of heavy metal byproduct.
The Idaho Cleanup Project (ICP), a multi-year initiative that was launched alongside Batt’s 1995 agreement, is currently led by the CH2M-WG decommissioning and decontamination team through close partnership with the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWLU) and Radioactive Waste Management Complex (RWMC) at the Idaho National Laboratory. The facilities are slated to begin treating over 900,000 gallons of high level sodium-bearing “legacy wastes” remaining from nuclear testing during WWII, as well as 35,000 cubic meters of low-level transuranic (subsurface) waste, by the time additional shipments of nuclear rods are scheduled to arrive in Idaho, per the latest DOE request. However, with a growing backlog of radioactive plutonium needing to be treated and added financial pressure from the DOE, it is unclear whether the INL will be able to properly or ethically manage the waste, or meet the extended deadlines for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, especially given the radioactive “traffic jam” of national waste shipments from Oak Ridge and the Savannah River Site.
As for the DEQ amendment, the definition modification last year was labeled a “simple” matter and not subject to negotiated rulemaking. The DEQ website recently posted a statement clarifying that they have “no discretion” with the update, citing it as more consistent with recent changes to federal regulations. As such, no public hearings or invitations to comment have been scheduled for the nuclear waste policy changes, but concerns can be submitted via the Department of Environmental Quality’s website. The 2015 Idaho Legislature was slated to discuss the pending amendments.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.