Idaho’s big battle over a small amount of spent nuclear fuel via Nuclear Street

What got things started is that nuclear scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) want to bring two bundles of 25 spent fuel rods to the facility to test them for research purposes. This request has run afoul of a settlement agreement for cleanup of nuclear waste at the site inked by former Idaho governor Phil Batt.  It includes a provision to remove all spent fuel from the state by 2035. Implicit in the 1995 agreement is that the Idaho site will never again be used by the Department of Energy (DOE) as an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.

Currently, the site holds spent fuel from the failed Three Mile Island reactor, from Peach Bottom, and a large but unknown inventory of classified spent fuel from the US Navy’s nuclear powered ships and submarines. All of it must be gone by 2035, presumably to a permanent geologic repository like Yucca Mountain. Thanks to US Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), Yucca Mountain never opened stranding the spent fuel in Idaho.

At risk in Idaho is the potential for radioactive residuals to seep into the Snake River aquifer which is an enormous state-wide groundwater source of irrigation water for the state’s potato crop. Farmers have for decades feared that the Department of Energy’s use of the INL as a nuclear waste dump would french-fry their crop right on the vine. While these fears have long since been set to rest, due to progress with the cleanup effort, dark suspicions remain about the government’s intentions. The plan to bring new spent fuel to Idaho, even for R&D purposes, has triggered the ghosts of these old fears to once again haunt the political landscape.

The result is that former Governor Batt, a republican, and former Governor Cecil Andrus, a democrat, have teamed up to oppose DOE’s plan to bring the two shipments of civilian spent fuel to Idaho. They see it as a camel’s nose under the tent, a first step in making the remote R&D site, located 50 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID, an interim storage facility for all of the nation’s spent fuel.  Were that to happen it would likely be in operation for at least 100 years or longer taking in as much as 100 million tonnes of spent nuclear fuel. This is not an outcome either man wants having established as their respective political legacies a plan for exactly the opposite intended outcome. Both men say the plan to bring the spent fuel to the INL violates the 1995 agreement.

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