Idaho's new crop: nuclear hot potatoes

  • Police car blocks radioactive waste headed for INEL

    Richard Walker/Idaho State Jour

Just before dawn on Oct. 24, police officers from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in Fort Hall, Idaho, parked a patrol car across railroad tracks at the border of the reservation. Then they waited.

Hours later, the engineer of a train hauling six casks of radioactive nuclear waste from Navy ships spotted the car and slowed to a halt. The train was a few hundred yards from the car and 40 miles from its destination, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL).

Tribal leaders ordered the confrontation because they had been left out of a crucial Oct. 17 agreement among Idaho officials, the Navy and the Department of Energy. The tribe wasn't invited, yet the agreement will allow more than 1,000 shipments of high-level nuclear waste into the state over the next 40 years, all of it crossing the reservation. Although tribal police eventually moved their car and let the train through, the blockade made it clear that the tribal government did not want more waste brought through Indian land.

Before reaching Fort Hall, the train had passed protesters in nearby Pocatello, repeating a scene of 10 months ago when Idaho Gov. Phil Batt allowed in eight waste shipments during his first month in office. That move broke a seven-year ban of nuclear waste by former Gov. Cecil Andrus and triggered opposition that taught Batt a quick lesson in the politics of nuclear storage. He soon took up Andrus' mantra: "No waste into Idaho."

Batt insists the recent deal is different, pointing to a statement from former Gov. Andrus that it was time to negotiate. The deal says that in return for accepting 1,113 shipments of spent fuel rods from Navy warships and DOE projects, Idaho will not become a permanent nuclear dump. The agreement also ensures that much of the waste at INEL must be cleaned up and out of Idaho by 2035. If cleanup goals aren't met, Idaho can suspend the shipments at any time; if all spent fuel isn't shipped out by 2035, the state can fine the federal agency $60,000 a day. The Energy Department also promised to ask Congress for $800 million for cleanup and research at INEL.

Batt called the deal "a tremendous victory for Idaho" because the state was running out of time. "If we don't get an agreement, the end result is going to be worse," a Batt aide predicted shortly before the agreement was signed.

INEL, begun in the late 1940s as a research facility investigating civilian applications of nuclear technology, soon became a major center for processing and dumping waste from nuclear weapons production and reactors. Much of the waste was buried in unlined pits above the Snake River aquifer, an underground reservoir of water that flows into the Snake River. Trace amounts of toxic waste from the burial site have been detected in the aquifer.

Batt says a blanket ban on nuclear waste - which started in 1993 when a U.S. District Court barred further shipments until the DOE completed an impact statement - would likely have ended sometime this fall. That's when a decision was due on a second lawsuit filed by Batt. In it, he challenged the DOE's environmental study of the shipments. Although Idaho dropped the challenge in light of the agreement, the court will hear a similar suit pressed by the Snake River Alliance, a citizens' watchdog group opposed to nuclear shipments. Even alliance members, however, don't expect another court injunction.

Stonewall to the end

Batt's critics don't buy the argument that he was at the end of his negotiating rope. Beatrice Brailsford, the eastern Idaho coordinator for the Snake River Alliance, says the state's all-Republican delegation had enough clout to block a proposed congressional rider forcing nuclear shipments into Idaho.

If Congress had legislated nuclear waste into Idaho, Brailsford says, it's better to have it for one year rather than giving in to shipments for 40 years. "If we don't make a deal," she says, "we live to fight another year."

Environmentalists fear that with nowhere else to store nuclear waste, shipments coming into Idaho will stay forever. Attempts to open permanent waste sites in New Mexico and Nevada have been hobbled by years of delays. Frustrated with those setbacks, talk in Congress has turned increasingly toward building an interim site to hold waste for up to 100 years (see story below).

With the cost of building and maintaining a permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., estimated at $35 billion, a yearly fine of $20 million at INEL for breaking the new agreement might seem reasonable. "They may well say, "Gee, we can just afford to pay rent at INEL," " says Laird Lucas, an attorney for the Snake River Alliance.

Although recent polls estimate that 80 to 90 percent of Idahoans oppose Batt's deal, Idaho's congressional delegation firmly backs it. As a result, nuclear waste will be a major issue in next year's election. Walt Minnick, a Boise businessman and Democrat, announced Oct. 18 that he would run against Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, in 1996. Citing Batt's settlement as a crucial factor in his decision, Minnick blasted Craig for not fighting congressional pressure. "If Larry Craig had been doing his job, this wouldn't have happened to Idaho," he says.

The eastern side of the state, however, has felt the impact of losing 2,000 INEL jobs in the last year to budget cutbacks. Civic leaders there praised Batt and the agreement.

The struggle is far from over. Tribal leaders have begun talks with the governor, and Beatrice Brailsford promises that protesters will continue waking up before dawn to meet the trains.

"Every time one waste train comes in," she says, "the issue will be fresh."

Warren Cornwall, HCN intern

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