Bringing the Economy Home

Gov.’s Commission Weighs Idaho Jobs Against Existing Nuclear Waste Disposal Agreement

Idaho National Laboratory

The Idaho National Laboratory provides 30 percent of all wages in Bonneville County, according to a 2010 Boise State University analysis.

The Idaho National Laboratory creates billions of dollars in economic impact for the state of Idaho, along with tens of thousands of jobs.  Sustaining and expanding that economic engine may require relaxing some of the requirements and restrictions on spent nuclear fuel shipments and waste disposal included in a 1995 agreement between the state, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

That’s the suggestion that undergirds a report released by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) Commission Monday.  The report is preliminary — it’s termed a “progress report” — and it includes recommendations from the commission’s handful of subcommittees. 

Midway through the report, preceding those recommendations, the commission calls for consideration of a half-dozen key questions.

  • What does it mean to be the nation’s lead nuclear energy laboratory?
  • Does the State of Idaho support that designation and want INL to maintain it?
  • What kind of research will need to be done at the lead nuclear energy laboratory?
  • The designation as the nation’s lead nuclear energy laboratory requires INL to conduct  research on various nuclear materials, including small quantities of commercial spent fuel and materials associated with research into high burn-up fuels. In order to fulfill its mission as the lead nuclear energy laboratory, what types of nuclear materials will need to be brought to INL for research?
  • If bringing those research materials to Idaho requires changes to the 1995 Settlement Agreement, is Idaho willing to consider such changes?
  • If Idaho is not willing to consider changes to the 1995 Settlement Agreement, is it instead willing to allow INL to lose its designation as the lead nuclear energy laboratory and see some or all of its research mission transferred to other DOE facilities?

By the report‘s own description, the 1995 Settlement Agreement was a “landmark event.”  It made Idaho “the only state in the nation with a court order mandating that federal nuclear waste leave state boundaries by a specific date.”  However, a number of recommendations included in the report appear to hinge on the settlement agreement being substantially changed.

The recommendations don’t come out of nowhere.  There have been indications, in recent years, that state leaders are looking at spent nuclear fuel not as a waste product, but as an economic opportunity.  However, commission chairman Jeff Sayer tells the Idaho Statesman that it would be premature for the state to seek “federal designation as an interim nuclear waste storage site,” as reporter Rocky Barker puts it.

The context of this is significant.  The Obama Administration terminated work on a planned nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, after decades of resistance from the state.  That leaves the U.S. without an underground repository for spent nuclear fuel.  In other words, it leaves the U.S. without a place to dispose of spent fuel in the way preferred by federal policy.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, convened in 2010, recommended a new strategy for nuclear waste management that relies on a “consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities.”

Key Idaho stakeholders including Gov. Otter and the Snake River Alliance, which terms itself “Idaho’s nuclear watchdog,” declined to discuss the report Monday.  The Snake River Alliance has expressed opposition, in recent weeks, to amending the 1995 Settlement Agreement.  Staff declined to comment in order to spend sufficient time studying the report.

The LINE Commission will accept public comment on the recommendations between now and Jan. 4.  It will submit a final non-binding report to the governor by Jan. 31 of next year.


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