Idaho's nuclear waste debate: the next chapter

Jeff Sayer would like Idahoans to take a good long time thinking about — and talking about — nuclear waste.

Even though voters spoke loudly in 1996, when they overwhelmingly ratified an agreement to close Idaho’s borders to nuclear waste in 2035.

And even though Sayer’s boss, Gov. Butch Otter, has said emphatically that he opposes allowing Idaho to become “the nation’s nuclear dumping ground.”

Nonetheless, Sayer believes it’s time for Idaho to have a conversation about nuclear waste, and the Idaho National Laboratory’s longtime economic future. “My personal hope is that we can reframe the conversation,” Sayer said in an editorial board meeting Tuesday. “Let’s be careful, but let’s be thoughtful.”

Sayer’s two hats are important, as are his roots.

Sayer is chairman of Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission, or LINE Commission. He also serves in Otter’s Cabinet as head of the Department of Commerce, the state’s economic development and job creation arm. And Sayer has deep ties to Eastern Idaho, coming to state government from the INL company town of Idaho Falls.

It’s understandable, then, that Sayer views the nuclear shipments issue through an economic lens. While he says it would be premature for Idaho to make any decisions about nuclear waste shipments, he’s also convinced that the decision will have a lasting effect on the INL. And that will have lasting impacts in Eastern Idaho, an area that hinges on the INL far more than the Treasure Valley hinges on any single economic driver. The staggering numbers: The INL accounts for a staggering 24,000 direct and indirect jobs and a $3.5 billion economic impact.

So here’s the dilemma.

The federal government has no place to store highly radioactive used fuel rods from the nation’s nuclear reactors. When the Obama administration bowed to political pressure and tabled the feds’ plans for a waste burial site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., the focus turned to finding a willing home for nuclear waste with nowhere else to go.

Actually, there are a few possibilities. One is in southeast New Mexico, where community leaders embraced and pursued the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground salt cavern now used as a burial ground for plutonium-laced garbage from INL and other sites. If New Mexico doesn’t double down, other states might pursue a storage project.

The potential threat for the INL, says Sayer, is that a state that accepts interim waste storage might also negotiate a share of the federal government’s nuclear power research. Since INL is the Department of Energy’s lead lab for nuclear research, any horse-trading would come at Idaho’s expense.

And so, when Sayer’s LINE Commission released its 52-page progress report Monday, the group posed a sensitive question. Would Idahoans willingly accept additional shipments of high-level waste — or “research materials,” in the report’s parlance — even if it requires renegotiating Idaho’s legally binding and voter-endorsed 1995 nuclear cleanup agreement with the feds?

The smart money would say no. Nuclear waste is a tough sell — at least outside Eastern Idaho.

Sayer thinks the state should revisit the issue, because circumstances have changed. When voters ratified the waste cleanup agreement in 1996, the federal government was on a long, slow path to opening Yucca Mountain, a potential destination for high-level wastes at INL. With Yucca Mountain on hold, there’s little chance the federal government will be able to keep its word and move all nuclear waste out of Idaho by 2035. The reasoning goes like this: Since Idaho will likely be a nuclear waste custodian past the year 2035, what’s a little bit more?

Persuading Otter poses another challenge. This spring, Otter ruled out the idea of allowing additional waste into Idaho — after former Govs. Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt publicly urged Otter to protect the 1995 waste agreement, crafted by Batt.

Sayer doesn’t want to put the governor in a box. “Everybody on the commission fully respects where he’s coming from.”
And Sayer credits Otter for giving the commission enough latitude to pose whatever questions it deems pertinent.

Idahoans have until Jan. 4 on the LINE Commission’s progress report — and the commission must make its recommendations to Otter by Jan 31. Sayer already has his druthers on the nuclear shipments question; he believes the issue is too complicated and too important to settle in two months.

Get ready for a long debate. And if the Andrus and Batt years are any indication, get ready for an emotional debate.

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