When Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter stood with two former Idaho governors on July 1 to announce an agreement between the state and the U.S. Department of Energy on radioactive waste cleanup, the message was: Getting rid of nuclear waste is good for Idaho's people and environment.
"We enter into this agreement confident that it is in the best interest of the aquifer, the Idaho National Laboratory and all Idahoans," Otter said.
Former Gov. Phil Batt, who signed the original agreement with DOE in 1995, called the deal practical and comprehensive, though he suggested the state could possibly have held out for more. And former Gov. Cecil Andrus said that the waste has been buried in Idaho for too long.
But nuclear cleanup has not been the overarching nuclear message in recent years in Idaho. At the same press conference to announce the agreement, held first in Idaho Falls and then in Boise, DOE's assistant secretary for environmental management James A. Rispoli referred to a "nuclear renaissance" and said that the INL west of Idaho Falls is a key player in America's energy future.
Idaho, first under Andrus and then Batt, fought federal shipments of nuclear waste, mostly from the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory near Denver. The plutonium-contaminated waste, including equipment used to process triggers for nuclear bombs, was haphazardly dumped in a southwest corner of INL, above the Snake River aquifer.
The state signed an agreement with the Feds to get rid of the waste in 1995, won several rounds in court, and with the latest agreement, will ship the stuff that can be practically exhumed to New Mexico within a decade.
The waste in the dump at INL is highly contaminated transuranic waste—material that is heavier than uranium and cannot be handled directly by workers.
Each of the governors—present and past—sees a future for nuclear energy in Idaho. But there is still the problem of where to put the new waste that a nuclear plant will produce.
"Still, there's a question of the disposal of the waste and it needs to be addressed before we go further, I think," Batt said.
Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said that in the past, nuclear waste was not dumped responsibly, but that any future ventures will go through a rigorous permitting process and fall under federal and state monitoring.
"None of those oversights were in place in the '50s and '60s when the bulk of the waste at INL was disposed," Hanian said.
And Andrus, who once ordered trains full of nuclear waste stopped at the state line, says the transuranics buried at INL are quite different from the type of waste coming off a modern nuclear power plant.
Still, he acknowledges, there is nowhere to put the spent fuel rods yet.
"I oppose the creation of new reactor core waste until such time as America comes up with the repository for the waste," Andrus said.