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.