Nuclear waste in Idaho: another side of the debate (W/AUDIO)

HEAR FOR YOURSELF: An excerpt from INL Director John Grossenbacher's interview with the Statesman editorial board.

John Grossenbacher is understandably skittish about PowerPoint presentations.

The Idaho National Laboratory chief found himself in the middle of a presentation-driven political dustup earlier this year. In a 2010 presentation, Grossenbacher floated the idea that Idaho might want to consider accepting additional shipments of nuclear waste. When the document fell into former Gov. Cecil Andrus’ hands, controversy ensued. As a result, current Gov. Butch Otter, following the lead of Andrus and former Gov. Phil Batt, declared the state off-limits for additional waste shipments.

Still, when Grossenbacher met with the Statesman editorial board last week, he came armed with a PowerPoint, one that illustrates the complexities of the nuclear waste storage issue — and where Idaho fits in the puzzle.

And why, as one member of Otter’s commission assigned to build the INL’s long-range mission, Grossenbacher believes the state should at least discuss the idea of accepting additional nuclear waste shipments in the years to come.

I disagree. But I can appreciate where Grossenbacher is coming from. Let’s look at a few numbers:

300. In metric tons, this is the amount of used nuclear reactor fuel stored in Idaho. Since Idaho doesn’t have any commercial nuclear reactors, all of its used fuel has come to the INL from other sites, such as the infamous Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania.

7,400. In metric tons, the spent nuclear fuel stored in Illinois, the state with the largest inventory of this highly radioactive material.

70,000. The nationwide inventory of spent nuclear fuel, measured, once again, in metric tons. In other words, for every pound of the waste stored in Idaho, there are 232 pounds stored somewhere else.

39. The number of states that store a share of the nation’s used nuclear waste inventory.

In other words, as Grossenbacher aptly points out, Idaho has a relatively small piece of this action. And his PowerPoint doesn’t make this point, but I will: Idaho has scant political clout, compared to more populated states that are home to thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel.

Grossenbacher’s presentation doesn’t make another key point either, but he is acutely aware of it. Ratepayers around the country — or, more precisely, ratepayers who get their electricity from nuclear reactors — have paid tens of billions of dollars of surcharges to pay for the construction of a permanent nuclear waste dump. That gives those states standing that Idaho simply doesn’t have.

All of these statistics are undisputable. And here’s another fact beyond dispute: The federal government is nowhere near finding a permanent home for any of these high-level wastes — now that the Obama administration, making good on a campaign pledge to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has abandoned the Yucca Mountain repository site in Nevada.

That leaves 39 states in a bind, and Idaho clutching one trump card. A 1995 nuclear waste agreement — crafted by Batt, and endorsed by Andrus and Otter — requires the feds to move all wastes out of Idaho by 2035. If the feds can’t meet that deadline, an increasingly likely prospect, the state can collect fines of $60,000 a day, or $22 million annually.

“That’s not going to incentivize the federal government to develop a repository, which is billions,” Grossenbacher said.

So Grossenbacher argues that the state, and Otter’s nuclear energy panel, should at least talk about reopening the 1995 agreement, and the pros and cons of accepting additional waste for storage.

There is something to Grossenbacher’s thesis: Idaho, even with its 1995 agreement, has only so much leverage. However, I can just as easily argue the opposing viewpoint; since this binding, enforceable agreement is the only weapon in its arsenal, the state would be ill-advised to renegotiate the terms. I’d also point out that the agreement was ratified, convincingly, by voted in a 1996 statewide vote. Those wishes should be honored.

A few weeks after the shipments flap, Grossenbacher says his biggest complaint is about the tone that played on fear. There was a suggestion that Idahoans should be afraid to even broach this topic. “I think that’s disrespectful of Idahoans. I think it’s a disservice. We ought to be able to talk about anything.”

Fair enough. But let’s go in remembering that Idahoans have spoken, and clearly, about nuclear waste storage.

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Geez KR ....

" one member of an Otter's commission..."
"...but he acutely aware of it..."
"All of this statistics are undisputable."

"...Idahoan's have spoken, and clearly..." -- kinda like Arizona's voters spoke clearly about enforcing laws regarding illegal immigration - look where it got them.

Fixes made.

Thanks for pointing them out.

Kevin Richert
editorial page editor

"played on fear,"

for a good reason. Many Idahoans have not forgotten about the nuke waste being pumped into the aquifer, not that many years ago.

Plutonium Potatoes

never hurt anyone*

*According to the INL and Bush Administration.


the glowing trout at Hagerman made it easy to clean them at night.


How many years ago was that?


to 1984, so we were told.

154,000,000 pounds

of this stuff that we have no idea what to do with. Just in the USA. No country has yet to figure out how to dispose of it in such a way that it's isolated from the environment for the necessary 1,000,000 years. Until then, we must actively manage it with short-term storage "solutions" that "safely" store it for times measured in decades. And, we keep making more of it.

120,000,000,000,000 pounds

is how much CO2 we put into to the atmosphere from burning coal over 50 years. Unlike the spent nuclear fuel that just sits on a pad, that CO2 is melting our ice caps. A 2004 report by the Clean Air Task Force estimated that soot pollution from power plants contributes to 24,000 premature deaths, 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks, and tens of thousands of hospital visits and asthma attacks each year. Yet we still rely on coal and other fossil fuels. I defy you to give me any statistics showing how many people the U.S. nuclear industry has killed each year. If you could come up with even a single fatality, it would likely be from construction or auto accident related. Nuclear energy is safe. Putting quotes around a word to make it look suspicious won't give you a statistical argument.

It is true that 50 years of operation only produced 70,000 metric tons of waste. That waste can be safely and indefinitely stored on a thousand acres of land without a single health effect to anyone. Comparing that to coal that is irreversibly transforming the planet. You are right, used fuel does remain radioactive for 1,000,000 years, unless you recycle it or perhaps develop a fast reactor to burn the actinides. But you seem to be arguing that we shouldn't allow researchers to find a solution to the problem of nuclear waste because there is nuclear waste. I'm sorry, but that logic is like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer because if feels good when you stop.

There are problems with nuclear technology that must be addressed, but as an environmentalist with real concerns about public health, I'll take nuclear over coal any day. Nice try, but changing units and adding zeros still won't win your argument.

Don't forget the Settlement

Don't forget the Settlement Agreement has been an important component to the very successful cleanup of the INL site. Over 900 cleanup milestones have been met and most ahead of schedule. (BTW, it seems that some members of the media and the local anti-nuclear folks seem to think the Seattlement Agreement applies to all of Idaho. Actually the agreement applies only to shipments of wasts and nuclear materials coming into and leaving the INL boundaries). The Idaho Seattlement Agreement really is the envy of other states where cleanup has not been so successful. That said, times have changed and it is naive to think that a 17-year old Seattlement Agreement should not be revisited once in a while. If change is necessary, then we should trust the same parties who originality produced the Agreement to review it again in a similar fashion based on science and reason.

Want a 56K modem or your 1995 salary?

Of course not. The Settlement Agreement made sense in 1995 because all the cleanup milestones were still in the future. It was a hedge to keep DOE funded and cleanup on track. It worked because it was put in place in 1995. It is now 2012, most of the cleanup work has been completed or is on track. The only valid incentive remaining in the old agreement has to do with materials that were destined for Yucca Mountain but the terms and fines are stuck in 1995. They are laughable by today's standards.

In light of the death of Yucca Mountain, the Blue Ribbon Commission made it clear that the government will offer communities with nuclear materials financial incentives to be a part of the solution. This is not a smart time to cling to the 1995 Settlement Agreement.

Yes, it is was a good deal in 1995, but that was nearly 20 years ago. I think we can get a better deal with more money, more incentives and an updated agreement with modern terms that look forward to the next 20-years. INL still has used fuel in inventory and DOE still needs the cooperation of Idaho. We are in a position to make a better deal for Idaho. Batt and Andrus may have had DOE over a barrel in 1995, but don't mythologize it like it was our last and only hope to extort a good deal with DOE.

In 1995, I offered my 5 year-old son a quarter for cleaning his room. My son is now thinking about graduate school, should he demand I keep the 1995 deal in place? Its time for Idaho to renegotiate a deal with the Feds, we have more to gain than we have to lose.

... all of its used fuel has come to the INL from other sites,

Not true. I suspect much of the 300 Metric Tons of fuel in inventory in Idaho was generated in state by research reactors INL operated over the years - it is not ALL out of state fuel. The biggest out of state source is likely Navy fuel and then fuel from research reactors. A lot of the research fuels are highly enriched so it makes sense to store it in facilities with higher security.