POCATELLO — Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden didn’t draft the historic 1995 agreement between Idaho and the U.S. Department of Energy regarding radioactive waste at the Idaho National Laboratory, but he’s determined to protect it.
It has resulted in Wasden coming under political pressure. That’s because he has refused to sign a waiver to bring more spent nuclear-fuel rods to the INL until the DOE makes good on its promise to begin processing 900,000 gallons of liquid sodium-bearing high-level waste stored at the site into a solid form.
That liquid waste is currently housed in three large stainless steel tanks reinforced by concrete located above the Snake River Aquifer. It has been there for 60 years.
Treating that liquid waste was part of the 1995 agreement signed by then-Gov. Phil Batt and Idaho Attorney General Al Lance. The agreement requires both the governor and attorney general to approve any waivers to bring additional spent fuel into Idaho unless the waste cleanup is finished.
“I have an independent responsibility and obligation to fulfill the 1995 agreement,” Wasden told about a dozen people gathered for a town hall meeting Thursday evening in Pocatello City Hall. “I’m not going to run away from that responsibility.”
Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad had invited Wasden to give the presentation and said Idaho citizens deserve to hear both sides of the argument when it comes to bringing additional nuclear materials to the INL.
Concern about the INL becoming a nuclear waste dump first surfaced in the 1980s when Cecil Andrus was governor. At one time, Andrus order the Idaho State Police to block a trainload of waste headed to the site near Arco. Negotiations between the DOE and Idaho led to the 1995 Batt agreement and it was ratified by about two-thirds of Idaho voters in 1996.
According to that agreement, all the liquid waste stored at the INL was supposed to be converted to solid form by Dec. 31, 2012.
“They (the DOE) haven’t processed a single ounce and that concerns me,” Wasden said.
Although the tanks holding the waste have never leaked, Wasden said carbon steel tanks holding the same type of liquid waste at the federal Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State are leaking.
The attorney general said he appreciates that INL is the best facility for doing research on spend fuel rods and it could bring additional funding and more jobs to Idaho. But he wants to see progress on the liquid waste cleanup before he signs off on additional shipments to Idaho.
The first request for Idaho to accept additional nuclear rods came from the DOE in 2004. Idaho granted a one-time waiver for a small quantity of spent fuel to come to the INL for research in 2011, but established a protocol reminding the DOE it had to comply with the 1995 agreement.
Then in December 2014, the DOE sent a letter to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter requesting additional shipments to the INL without notifying the attorney general. Wasden said he sent a letter to the DOE in January of 2015 notifying the federal government that it was out of compliance with the 1995 agreement because the Integrated Waste Treatment facility at the INL wasn’t operational.
Wasden said this led to allegations from the DOE and political leaders in Idaho, including Gov. Otter, that Idaho’s Attorney General was obstructing progress at the site and hampering the nation’s nuclear program.
“I didn’t put a single deadline on the DOE, not ever,” Wasden said. “I just wanted them to show progress on the cleanup.”
Using a computer slideshow, Wasden showed the exact language in the 1995 agreement that shows the only leverage Idaho has to force the DOE to clean up the liquid waste at the INL is to refuse additional shipments of spent nuclear fuel.
The agreement states the “sole remedy” for noncompliance by the DOE “shall be suspension of DOE spent fuel shipments to the INEL.”
In 1995 the Idaho National Laboratory was called the Idaho National Energy Lab.
The attorney general said he’s optimistic that the DOE will solve technical issues regarding the processing of liquid waste at the site. Then Idaho can resume a role in conducting research on additional spent fuel. In the meantime, he’s holding the line.
Wasden’s resolve led to a joint resolution without hearings in the Idaho Legislature this spring that called for a waiver on spent fuel rods and suggestions from Gov. Otter that it might be time to de-consolidate legal services in Idaho now under the direction of Idaho’s highest elected legal official.
“I’m just trying to fulfill my obligation to Idaho,” Wasden said.
Those attending Thursday’s meeting gave Wasden a round of applause.
“It’s nice to have an attorney general who stands up for us,” said Rep. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello.