Door closed on revising Batt's 1995 nuclear waste agreement

The mistaken inclusion of a two-year-old PowerPoint presentation in briefing documents for Gov. Butch Otter’s Leadership In Nuclear Energy Commission has clarified a political consensus on nuclear waste apparently muddied last year.

Since Idaho voters backed Gov. Phil Batt’s 1995 nuclear waste agreement with the Department of Energy, 60-40, Republicans and Democrats stood together behind a relatively simple message:Don’t send more commercial nuclear waste to Idaho and get rid of all of the waste that’s here by 2035.

There were a few exceptions, but the gist of these were that if Idaho was going to swerve from the agreement, the federal government was going to pay us for that in money or jobs. In 2011, Otter pushed the line of that interpretation by agreed to accept 800 pounds of spent fuel for research, that would replace an equal amount of federal waste that is still allowed to be shipped here.

Former Gov. Cecil Andrus balked and said it was the first sign that the federal government was looking for interim storage for the 70,000 tons of waste that had been planned for final storage a Yucca Mountain in Nevada. When President Barack Obama issued an order saying Yucca would not open it had left the future of 300 tons of federal waste at the INL in limbo.

Batt, whose agreement was built on Andrus’ long efforts to force the federal government to deal with Idaho waste, stood with Otter against his old friend and political rival. To some especially in eastern Idaho, this appeared to be an opportunity.

Idaho’s Republican Central Committee approved a resolution earlier in July that said “used nuclear fuel is not a waste product, rather that it should be considered by the state as an asset-based material with all the legal ramification included under federal law,” and that “it may be used for research, nuclear fuel manufacturing, giving significant economic benefit to the state of Idaho and enhancing the energy independence of the United States of America.”

While not saying so directly, some nuclear energy supporters, who see the waste issue as primarily a not-in-my-back-yard phenomenon, hoped perhaps the benefits of revising the agreement to produce new INL programs and jobs could convince the GOP majority.

In the background Obama had appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to examine what the nation should do about nuclear waste. INL Director John Grossenbacher put together the PowerPoint to help guide his Battelle Energy Alliance staff so they know his mind, he said.

Battelle is the contractor for the Department of Energy and Grossenbacher works for them. The more work they generate for the INL, the better they do financially. So he lists the chance to demonstrate Idaho’s national nuclear leadership before the Blue Ribbon Coalition in 2010 for what it was, an opportunity. And he listed as a proposal: Initiate negotiations to produce a revised settlement agreement, the Batt agreement.

He listed among his ideas, serving as an interim dry storage site for 3,000 tons of spent fuel, delaying the processing of partially processed nuclear waste at the INL until 2040 and an extention for other used fuel until 2050. The federal government would still meet its current commitments to remove low-level, long-lived waste and solidify liquid waste.

The potential benefits he listed include Idaho becoming a partner in ownership of the 890-square-mile INL. Grossenbacher told me Tuesday he never meant this to be a literal ownership transfer, simply a stronger partnership like the state has with the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, that is a partnership between INL, the state universities and state government.

Grossenbacher acknowledged he presented his ideas to Otter. He listed in his 2010 PowerPoint that they had met and that Otter had appointed “a team to assess the burdens acceptable to Idaho and develop a list of fair benefits to the state.”

Then they were to present the proposal to DOE and the Blue Ribbon Commission. Otter did appoint his own LINE Commission “to provide recommendations to the governor on how the INL can continue playing an important role in economic growth and energy security.” But he told them to work within the existing agreement.

There are issues they can address without changing the agreement. The Navy still brings spent fuel to Idaho for storage but no longer reprocesses it.

Without Yucca, the Navy has to decide what to do in the long term with its spent fuel from nuclear submarines and ships. That means at the least updating its Idaho facilities to continue storage is on the table and it might want to consider more.

If leaving all the nation’s waste where it is becomes the preferred alternative, as the Snake River Alliance wants, that still means we need more testing of the long term commercial storage casks. Seventy-five percent of the nations commercial spent fuel is stored under water.

With 30 million rods sitting in pools like those that failed at the ill-fated Fukushima Dai-ichi plants in Japan, this is a problem now and will be in the future.

The INL’s nuclear handling facilities and research capabilities make it ideal for this work. And the U.S. must develop a whole range of research facilities and capabilities if it is going to be able to lead other nations on nonproliferation and nuclear development instead of say, China.

Those are the kind of issues Otter’s LINE Commission will address along with ways to help the state’s private businesses take advantage of nuclear energy development. But this week’s flap, started by Andrus and then backed by Batt and Otter, put strong sideboards against even considering revising the 1995 agreement.

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You fry wants with that?