As politicians and the nuclear industry struggle with what to do with some 70,000 tons of highly radioactive commercial nuclear fuel that is no longer useable and is stored at reactor sites across the nation, an Idaho nuclear watchdog group is warning that the state is vulnerable to becoming a permanent spent-fuel waste dump.
There are already rumblings in the state that hosting a commercial spent-fuel storage site, ostensibly at the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho, could become a “gigantic industrial opportunity.” The Idaho Statesman reported on Nov. 26 that government and business leaders in eastern Idaho are now urging that the state could become an interim storage site for at least some of the spent fuel.
Also, a report issued in February from Gov. Butch Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission leaves the door open for changes to a “1995 Settlement Agreement” that banned commercial spent fuel from being sent to Idaho. The report stopped short of recommending that Idaho offer itself up as a spent-fuel storage site, perhaps at the behest of Otter who has said loud and clear that Idaho will not become another Yucca Mountain.
The national plan of what to do with spent nuclear fuel, including some already stored at INL, was thrown into flux in 2010, when the Obama administration nixed plans for a permanent spent-fuel disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
With no Yucca Mountain, what to do with the spent fuel is yet to be determined.
Idaho’s vulnerability, regardless of the 1995 Settlement Agreement, was discussed by the nuclear watchdog group Snake River Alliance at a meeting Tuesday night at the Community Library in Ketchum. The event was attended by some 50 local residents.
“This is no time for Idaho to say yes, we want to be on the list for nuclear storage,” said Beatrice Brailsford, of Pocatello, the organization’s nuclear program director. “But there always is that danger. We have been targeted forever from the nuclear waste from other places. I think there will always be the possibility of wanting to move nuclear waste to Idaho.”
Brailsford mentioned that there is interest in the state about Idaho’s becoming a storage site for spent commercial fuel because “many people at INL regard spent fuel as a resource,” which translates into jobs and money.
INL spent fuel
Established in 1949, the INL, which has had several previous names, sprawls across 890 square miles of desert west of Idaho Falls. The INL has had some 50 test reactors in operation through its history, operated a processing plant for reprocessing spent Navy fuel and served as a dumping ground for plutonium-contaminated waste from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado.
The Rocky Flats waste is now being cleaned up and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
However, nothing is being done yet, except for storage, with the vast amount of spent fuel, some of it of a commercial nature, already at the INL.
The INL has about 300 tons of spent naval fuel in storage and continues to receive spent fuel shipments when nuclear-powered ships are refueled. The site has about 900,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquid from the now inactive Idaho Chemical Processing Plant, where spent naval fuel was reprocessed to reclaim uranium. Also stored is some 4,000 cubic meters of dry or “calcine” waste produced from liquid extraction at the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant.
Further, INL is storing 140 tons of highly radioactive nuclear core debris that resulted from the Three Mile Island Unit 2 partial core meltdown in 1979. The damaged core materials were shipped by rail to the INL from the Pennsylvania site from 1986 through 1990. The TMI core material was brought to Idaho ostensibly for research and before the 1995 ban on commercial spent fuel being brought to the state.
The 1995 Settlement Agreement was reached as a result of a lawsuit filed by the state of Idaho against the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees INL operations, and the Navy to prevent them from sending spent nuclear fuel to the state for storage. Provisions of the agreement established cleanup deadlines, mainly for the Rocky Flats waste, allowed shipments of naval fuel to continue to INL, mandated that all spent fuel and high-level waste be removed from INL by 2035 and banned commercial spent fuel from being sent to INL.
The Snake River Alliance has taken the position that it is not satisfied with the final report issued on Feb. 6 by the Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission, which is typically referred to as the LINE Commission. The discontent comes from the fact that the LINE report does not emphatically state that spent commercial fuel cannot come to Idaho and suggests instead that for economic purposes, changes should be considered to the 1995 Settlement Agreement.
The Snake River Alliance stated that it is pleased that a recommendation to establish a “pilot” storage facility for commercial spent fuel at the INL, a provision of an earlier LINE report draft, did not make it into the final report.
The LINE Commission was formed to show how the INL can continue to contribute to the economy of Idaho. The LINE report states that the INL is responsible for 24,000 jobs in Idaho and contributes more than $3.5 billion to Idaho annually.
Terry Smith: email@example.com