Radioactive waste is hot issue in Idaho

  • Train carrying nuclear waste casks to INEL - Robert Bower/Idaho Falls Pos

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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 2035.

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 Engineering Laboratory.

"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 like hell."

Anti-nuke forces in Idaho have long opposed the storage of more solid and liquid nuclear waste at the federal laboratory.

They say:

* 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 that,

* 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 of farms.

"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 here.

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.

Since 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."

Andrus 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 immediately.

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 208/334-2100.

Steve Stuebner reports from Boise, Idaho.

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