New governor accepts nuclear waste

  • Train passing through Shoshone, Idaho, carrying radioactive waste

    William Cook
  • Ellen Glaccum and Janet O'Crowley protest nuclear waste

    William Cook

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 Idaho.

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 Glaccum.

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 late January.

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 exception.

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 Idaho.

"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 open.

The writer reports from Boise, Idaho. HCN intern Ross Freeman contributed to this report.

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