The Snake River Alliance, Idaho's self-proclaimed "Nuclear Watchdog," is celebrating its silver anniversary on Monday, April 19 and Tuesday, April 20 with a conference entitled "25 Years of Nuclear Activism: Swimming Upstream to Protect Communities Downstream." The seminar, featuring five lectures, two forum discussions and a special screening of the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, comes at a high point in the SRA's history, mere days after what SRA executive director Jeremy Maxand labels "One of the most effective lobbying efforts that we've ever had." "We met with all of our Idaho congressional delegates, as well as others from Georgia, South Carolina, Washington and Oregon," Maxand reports of the Alliance's participation in the "DC Days" event in Washington, D.C., held March 28 through 31. "People were supportive across the board of our lawsuit [to stop the DOE from avoiding proper cleanup by reclassifying high-level nuclear waste], protecting the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and keeping [nuclear waste] cleanup a priority."
Several of the SRA conference speakers, including Institute for Energy and Environmental Research President Arjun Makhijani and Director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability Susan Gordon, were involved in the lobbying event, to some great ends. "The consensus is that we're winning," Maxand explains. "The Department of Energy [DOE] is on the run and they are finding that it's harder and harder to justify cleanup by attrition. That is encouraging because the topic of our conference is about 'Swimming Upstream,' and going up against an agency like the DOE, which has been shrouded in cold war secrecy for half a century. It can feel like we're going against the current without a paddle. Now we're just trying to keep the pressure on and keep pushing."
With this forward momentum in mind, very little of the lecture time at "Swimming Upstream" will be devoted to historical reminiscences of the long and impressive list of accomplishments realized by the SRA. For those participants not up to date, some highlights include: halting the construction of no less than three nuclear weapons plants at INEEL, the stoppage of a proposal to build a plutonium production reactor as well as an isotope separator meant to upgrade "reactor grade" plutonium into "weapons grade" and constant and vigilant opposition to the INEEL's irresponsible handling of radioactive waste above the Snake River aquifer. Perhaps most famously, the Alliance also embarked on the unprecedented task of monitoring and announcing the arrival of clandestine shipments of spent nuclear fuel into Idaho. "Spent fuel shipments were not publicized. They were treated as if they were shipments of nuclear weapons," SRA Development Director Margaret Macdonald explains. "We started tracking those shipments and telling not only the people of Idaho but the state of Idaho, which in turn was instrumental in helping the state get a stronger role at INEEL. Governor Andrus acknowledged that that we were the bedrock on which the state could take its stand."
One of the organization's proudest moments is also one that SRA Program Director Beatrice Brailsford labels "not particularly glamorous." "We worked with state and citizen groups from around the country," she recalls, "in order to ensure that the DOE had to obey [the Nuclear Waste Policy Act]. We won in 1992, and that was the last major environmental law passed in this country. It was, and is, a lot more important than most people realize, because it gave someone outside of the DOE enforcement power over the way that waste is handled. If we're safer in Idaho and as a nation, it's not because the DOE has removed any perils, but because more people are watching. The most unsafe position we could be in is one in which no one is keeping tabs."
Lessons learned from these past victories will feature most prominently in the panel discussion, "Tools of the Movement: How You Make a Difference," taking place on Tuesday afternoon. Other conference highlights will include discussions of Idaho's historical role in the nuclear energy program, the shady history of the DOE, nuclear weapons and non-proliferation and a forum led by local activists, ranchers and politicians about the experience of living downstream from INEEL's half-century of nuclear activity.