This editorial was published in the Post Register of Idaho Falls.
In the early days of the nuclear age, the deeply irresponsible decision was made to treat Idaho as a dumping ground. Waste created by nuclear weapons production was shipped from Colorado and buried in our backyard, as were a number of other kinds of nuclear waste.
The 1995 settlement agreement, a major achievement for environmental protection in Idaho that was crafted by Govs. Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt, forced the U.S. Department of Energy to take ownership of the genuine dangers it created by haphazardly dumping waste over the East Snake Plain Aquifer.
Last week, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Gov. Brad Little announced that they had successfully negotiated a modification to the agreement.
It will allow the importation of a limited amount of spent fuel (100 pounds of dense metal, an amount that could fit in a small suitcase) once DOE has demonstrated that it can treat and export the 900,000 gallons of liquid waste that have remained perched over our aquifer for decades. Further shipments will be allowed if DOE continues to perform on its obligations. DOE also agreed to treat and remove some additional waste produced locally by the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II, and it requires that a majority of shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico come from Idaho.
This deal is a major benefit to this community and we owe Little and Wasden a debt of gratitude. It will help ensure that spent fuel processing research continues at Idaho National Laboratory rather than being moved to another state. It will hold DOE accountable for getting waste out of Idaho. But more than that, it will ensure that research vital to our collective future can be performed.
Those who continue to oppose the importation of even small quantities of material for waste processing research are free to do so. But they shouldn’t call themselves environmentalists.
The greatest threat the planet currently faces is rising global temperatures driven by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. We need to work to transition away from those fuels as quickly as possible.
Wind and solar generation are increasingly cheap, produce large amounts of clean power and will be an important part of this transition. But because they produce power intermittently, a clean source of baseload, “always-on” power is required.
Hydropower doesn’t release greenhouse gasses directly, but some studies suggest it involves relatively high greenhouse gas emissions due to the rotting of vegetation in flooded valleys. And it can have other highly detrimental effects, as anyone who was hoping to bag a salmon or steelhead this year knows.
Geothermal power can be a good option, but there are relatively few locations where it is feasible at present.
Nuclear energy has the capability to produce large amounts of reliable baseload power with levels of lifetime carbon emissions quite similar to solar and wind (a bit is released during construction and by mining fuel). It can be located almost anywhere, especially with the advent of new, smaller reactors.
The main problem that must be solved to make a major expansion of nuclear energy in the United States practical, in addition to solving the issue of long-term waste storage, is to effectively process and safely store the relatively small amount of waste that reactors produce.
This is the kind of research that INL wants to do and it is vital.
That’s why cheers are in order for Wasden and Little, who have come up with a deal that will allow that research to take place as long as DOE can fulfill its commitments.
Of course, all of these benefits continue to swing on the effectiveness of the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit, which is tasked with converting liquid waste into a solid form that can then be removed from Idaho. Reportedly, test runs using a substance meant to mimic the real waste have gone well.
The ball is squarely in the site’s cleanup contractor, Fluor Idaho LLC, and DOE’s court, where it belongs. Let’s hope they come through.
It’s important for the aquifer. It’s important for INL and the local economy. But more than that, it is integral to solving one of the toughest problems the world faces.