Boise, Idaho - Nuclear waste critics have taken on Idaho Gov. Phil Batt with a bang.
In 10 weeks
they collected 52,000 valid signatures - some 10,000 more than were
needed - to get a "Stop the Shipments' initiative on the November
ballot. If voters say yes Nov. 3, not only will Batt's agreement to
accept more nuclear waste be thrown out, but all future pacts
between Idaho and the federal government will need citizen and
state legislature approval.
Batt signed the
agreement, which he touts as "the envy of the nation," in February.
It says the Department of Energy will begin removing nuclear waste
from Idaho in 1999 and continue until all waste is removed by
But Democratic legislators and other
critics say Batt's agreement with the DOE is riddled with holes and
unenforceable. They say the worst part of the agreement is that it
allows 1,133 shipments of waste to come into the Idaho National
"I think we've been had,"
says former Democratic state Sen. John Peavey, a sheep rancher.
"We'll be the nation's de facto nuclear waste dump unless we fight
Anti-nuke forces in Idaho have long
opposed the storage of more solid and liquid nuclear waste at the
The 890-square-mile government compound lies on top of the Snake
Plain Aquifer, a giant freshwater source that provides drinking
water for 90 percent of the state's residents; and
* INEL, located on top of an old volcanic
zone, is near the same fault zone that caused a major earthquake in
Challis, some 100 miles to the north, in 1983. The quake registered
7.3 on the Richter scale.
The fear is that an
earthquake could cause nuclear waste to spill into the aquifer,
contaminating drinking water and irrigation water used by thousands
"I think it has the potential to be a
Chernobyl-like situation," says Norma Douglas, director of Stop the
Shipments, a new public interest group. "There's a lot of questions
that should be answered before we start piling up a lethal
situation out there."
Beyond the high-pitched
rhetoric that's being traded by both sides, how voters cast ballots
on the issue could have a major impact on the destiny of nuclear
waste now being stored at INEL, as well as 92,000 shipments of
nuclear waste stored at commercial reactors across the nation.
Foreign countries are also set to ship some radioactive material
The political stakes of the initiative are
huge: First-term Gov. Batt has staked his reputation on the DOE's
ability to carry out the deal. The issue is also a key plank in
Boise timber executive Walt Minnick's campaign against incumbent
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.
Craig supports Batt's
agreement and is working hard in Congress to force the opening of
the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, N.M., and a
temporary high-level dump at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.
Minnick thinks the DOE will renege on the deal,
leaving INEL as the nation's waste dump.
the measure qualified for the ballot in early July, Batt has
blasted opponents and talked up his agreement at every opportunity.
The first-term governor calls the Stop the Shipments campaign
"deceitful." He notes it is financed, in part, by Hollywood actor
Bruce Willis, who has a part-time residence near Sun Valley. Willis
was not registered to vote in Idaho until a local reporter made the
fact known this summer.
"The Stop the Shipments
Initiative is blatantly misnamed," Batt says. "The initiative will
not stop any shipments of spent fuel to Idaho. What it will do is
stop cleanup at INEL." Batt says that without his agreement, Idaho
would still be vulnerable to receiving thousands of additional
shipments of nuclear waste.
Confusing matters for
voters is the role of former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, who once
compared the Energy Department's credibility to a Boise used-car
dealership named "Fairly Reliable Bob's."
endorsed Batt's agreement after being hired as a consultant by
Lockheed Martin Idaho Technologies, INEL's general contractor. Back
in the early 1990s, Andrus halted nuclear waste shipments at the
state border until the DOE agreed to comply with state and federal
environmental laws. Now, Andrus says Batt's deal with DOE merits
support because it mandates spending public money to remove nuclear
waste from Idaho, "and this agreement is better than no agreement."
Peavey attributes Andrus' change of heart to his
consulting job, for which he's paid $165 an hour. "An awful lot of
people who came forward and signed our petitions said Cecil sold
out," Peavey said.
Peavey maintains the DOE
cannot be trusted.
"For decades, they have
withheld information, distorted information and outright lied to
people," he said. "I think you'd have a hard time finding anyone
less trustworthy than the DOE."
On Aug. 9, an
effort by 11 Idaho business and labor organizations to quash the
nuclear waste referendum failed. The state Supreme Court ruled that
Idahoans have the right to vote on the issue. But a lawyer for the
corporate group, The Coalition for Ballot Integrity, says if the
nuclear-waste initiative passes, a legal challenge will begin
For more information on the
initiative campaign, contact Stop the Shipments, at 208/338-3810.
For more information on Gov. Batt's nuclear agreement, call
reports from Boise,