On New Year’s Day, a federal government deadline came and went without action.
But unlike the fabled “fiscal cliff,” this blown deadline passed without fanfare. The feds failed to meet their deadline to remove 900,000 gallons of liquid high-level radioactive waste from tanks at the Idaho National Laboratory. This deadline is one among hundreds, spelled out in a 1995 nuclear waste cleanup agreement with the state of Idaho.
According to former Govs. Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt, this failed deadline illustrates the value of a court-enforceable agreement that gives Idaho unique leverage over the feds. Idaho is “blessed” to have the agreement, says Batt, who brokered the deal in 1995, and the state should keep it intact.
Andrus and Batt held court with the Statesman editorial board Wednesday morning, a meeting Andrus sought in the interest of equal time. Last month, our board met with Jeff Sayer — Gov. Butch Otter’s Commerce Department director, and the head of a gubernatorial panel examining the INL’s future. Sayer came in to explain why the state should consider allowing additional shipments of nuclear waste into Idaho, to support the INL’s research mission — even if it means revisiting the limits and deadlines set by the 1995 agreement.
Says Andrus: “If you’re satisfied with something, why revisit it?” He is skeptical of the suggestion that Idaho needs to accept additional waste shipments in order to preserve jobs, calling it a “blackmail scheme.”
By extension, Andrus and Batt are skeptical of the panel chaired by Sayer — known officially as the Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) Commission.
Since Otter supports keeping the 1995 agreement intact, Batt says he isn’t sure why Sayer is even reopening the question. “I don’t understand the whole process,” said Batt, a Republican and political mentor to Otter.
Andrus, a Democrat, is more blunt. He believes the commission exists only “to give cover” for a politically unpopular about-face on nuclear waste.
The nuclear waste agreement, ratified by Idaho voters in 1996, is best known for two things.
First, it limits the number of spent nuclear fuel shipments into the state — unless, of course, Idaho changes its mind.
Second, it requires the feds to remove all nuclear waste from Idaho by 2035. However, the feds have no solid plan for a permanent nuclear waste repository. Sayer doesn’t expect the feds to meet the 2035 deadline — and neither do Batt and Andrus. The agreement then gives Idaho some measure of protection; it can collect fines, to the modest (by federal standards) tune of $60,000 a day.
Still, the agreement does something else. It establishes rigid deadlines for environmental cleanup at the 890-square-mile INL site. For the most part, and to its credit, the federal government has met the vast majority of those milestones.
When the feds fail to meet a deadline, Idaho has some real leverage.
That’s the case with the 900,000 gallons of liquid high-level waste — which remain stored underground, in stainless steel tanks that sit in concrete vaults. The feds are supposed to convert this liquid waste into a granular form, the first step in treating this waste for burial at a repository. But the INL won’t be ready to begin treating the liquid waste until July, and the job is expected to take 10 months. In the meantime, and in accordance with the 1995 agreement, the Energy Department has suspended its nuclear waste shipments to Idaho.
On Friday, Otter again told reporters that he sees no reason to reopen the agreement. “We’re not going to become the dumping ground for nuclear waste.” On this front, he has two respected former governors on his side.