BOISE, Idaho - New Idaho Gov. Philip E. Batt broke with tradition Jan. 12 and agreed to accept a total of 11 railroad-borne casks of nuclear waste from the U.S. Navy during the next six weeks.
In return, the Navy has promised
to find a geologic repository outside Idaho "as quickly as
practical" and transfer decades' worth of nuclear waste from Idaho
to the new site.
But no licensed alternative site
exists, and neither Batt nor the Navy could say when the waste will
be removed from Idaho.
Batt's decision reverses
the policy of former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who tried to prohibit the
Navy and U.S. utilities from shipping any more nuclear waste to
The spent fuel rods are generated by the
Navy's fleet of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. The Navy
has made about 600 shipments of the radioactive rods to the Idaho
National Engineering Lab (INEL), about 60 miles northwest of
Pocatello, since the 1950s. The coming shipments will be from the
U.S.S. Enterprise carrier, which is docked at Newport News, Va.
During the last three years, the Snake River
Alliance, a citizen's watchdog group based in Boise, has protested
every waste-carrying train coming to Idaho. The heavily guarded
trains run on a secret schedule designed to avoid publicity, but
the alliance maintains a human telegraph of activists along the
lines to send the alert to the next town when a train passes by,
according to alliance coordinator Ellen
All the shipments roll through
Pocatello. Sometimes two trains join farther south in McCammon,
combining waste from Virginia and bases at Bremerton, Wash., and
Mare Island, near San Francisco, Calif. Thirty-five people
witnessed such a hybrid train, toting no less than eight casks -
the largest shipment to date - as it passed through Pocatello in
Activists say they miss the
support of former Gov. Andrus, who took the Navy to court in 1993.
A federal judge upheld the state's case and ordered an
environmental impact statement, which is due this June. The current
shipments came about after the Navy petitioned for an emergency
Calling the shipments an "outrage,"
Kerry Cooke, a spokeswoman for the alliance, said she doubted the
Navy would have any power over whether the waste is removed from
"It's the Navy's intent to bring their
spent fuel to Idaho for decades and decades," Cooke said. "We're
still going to have all of their spent fuel, and it's going to be
hazardous virtually forever."
Accepting the new
shipments, Batt agreed with the Navy's contention that they're a
matter of national security. Asked how he was convinced, Batt said
he received a briefing about the need to replace old fuel rods on
nuclear ships quickly.
Batt at first hinted that
INEL may receive even more shipments from the Navy. Depending on
the outcome of the EIS process, Batt said, "if the shipments can be
accommodated without harming the environment, then I suspect they
will be allowed."
But in late January Gov. Batt
talked tougher, saying he will never accept further storage of
waste - government or civilian - until he has a deadline for its
removal that he trusts.
State Sen. Mel
Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, applauded Batt's willingness to help the
Navy. "I have no fear of the safety factor; I don't think I'm going
to start glowing in the dark. This decision could open the door for
very big things as far as permanent storage is concerned."
Because the Navy waste is highly radioactive, it
should be stored at the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada,
Richardson said. But no one knows when that site will
The writer reports
from Boise, Idaho. HCN intern Ross Freeman contributed to this