Will Idaho voters derail nuclear trains?

  • Steve Hopkins of Stop the Shipments campaign - Jesse Tinsley/Spokesma

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It's easy to see how the politically powerful of Idaho stand on storing nuclear waste in the state: Gov. Phil Batt signed an agreement a year ago allowing more than a thousand such shipments to enter the state in exchange for a pledge that existing waste leave the state by 2035 (HCN, 9/2/96). Republican Sen. Larry Craig supports him. Craig's Democratic challenger, Walt Minnick, does not. Nor does John Peavey, a former state senator and Democrat who may run for Batt's seat in 1998.

Although nuclear waste has become a defining issue in the Senate race, how Idahoans themselves feel about the issue won't become clear until next month, when they'll vote on a citizens' initiative which would void Batt's agreement.

Called Proposition 3, it would also require that all future agreements between the state and the federal government be approved by the state Legislature and Idaho citizens. The initiative was shepherded to the ballot by a group called Stop the Shipments, which is chaired by Peavey.

Although recent polls show 52 percent in favor of the proposition and 29 percent against it, the issue has many voters confused. "There are a lot of people that don't even know there's an agreement," says Norma Douglas of Stop the Shipments.

To further bewilder voters, another group with a similar name formed last month to support Batt's agreement. Get the Waste Out argues that a "yes' vote on Proposition 3 won't necessarily stop the shipments but will stop waste from leaving the state, thereby causing the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory to become a de facto repository for the nation's nuclear waste.

Loopholes in Batt's agreement will allow essentially the same thing to happen, says Peavey. He also points out that Batt's agreement lets in more than just the thousand shipments. For example, it requires INEL to accept 500 boxcars worth of "mixed waste' - plutonium-contaminated waste mixed with hazardous chemicals - and to build a treatment facility such as an incinerator.

Which group is telling the truth? Neither and both, say outside experts, since so much still depends on how the courts will react to promised lawsuits challenging the initiative's legality and asking for an injunction against future shipments. The larger issue also remains: Will permanent nuclear waste dumps ever be approved in Nevada and New Mexico?

But it is clear who's funding each group: Get the Waste Out is primarily funded by large corporations such as Monsanto and Micron, while Stop the Shipments is bankrolled by private citizens and the nonprofit Snake River Alliance.

The schism between the Senate candidates over the issue represents an unusual situation in the West, where state politicians have typically stood unified against more populous states that have tried to force waste on the politically weak. "There's confusion among the troops," says Douglas. "It's really a shame that the political leadership isn't more united."

Elizabeth Manning is assistant editor for High Country News.

Note: this article is part of a feature package on ballot initiatives that includes these other articles:

- Has big money doomed direct democracy?

- Polluted waters divide Oregon

- An 'unfair, inflexible' bid to clean Montana's water

- Colorado voters decide fate of 3 million acres

- Western hunters debate ethics tooth and claw

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