Uncomfortable questions on four-day school effects, but no clear answers

Over the last week, Idaho Education News has rolled out in-depth reports on the effects of four-day schedules on school district finances and student performance.

But what about the other parts of the community? Idaho Reports explored possible ripple effects of a four-day schedule, with uncomfortable questions about teen pregnancy and juvenile crime rates.

Crime rates dropping, but no clear answer why

While superintendents and teachers we spoke to said many families have child care or an at-home parent for their children on their days off, as well as activities for older students, many said that isn’t always true for everyone across the board.

So without structure or supervision from the school, do some kids find trouble on Fridays?

Like many questions surrounding four-day schedules, those answers are hard to come by. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare tracks teen pregnancy rates, and Idaho State Police tracks juvenile crime, but each agency does so by county, not by school district.

To add to the confusion: While a handful of counties are now 100 percent on a four-day schedule, most counties in Idaho have a mix of four-day and five-day schools, making statistics unclear.

In interviews with Idaho Reports and Idaho Education News, county and school officials said anecdotally, they have seen no difference in teen pregnancies, and in many cases, juvenile crime numbers have gone down.

In an October 5 interview, Adams County Sheriff Ryan Zollman said if anything, juvenile crime has dropped since Council High School transitioned to a four-day week.

“A lot of it has to do with the kids are in school Monday through Thursday longer,” Zollman said. That extra hour of school time means there are fewer kids milling around in the afternoon before their parents get home.

Gooding County Sheriff Shaun Gough agreed. “We actually think it’s better,” he said.

But as with anything, correlation vs causality is tough to pinpoint. Zollman said another possible reason juvenile crime is down is there are simply fewer juveniles in the community.

Between 2000 and 2014, Council’s population has hovered between 800 and 840 people, but the percentage of households with children younger than 18 dropped from 27.4 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2010. It’s a slight difference, but one that Zollman has noticed.

“The working families are leaving the community,” he said.

Another factor: Juvenile crime is down everywhere statewide. In 2009, law enforcement agencies reported 13,944 charges against juvenile offenders, according to Idaho State Police. In 2013, that number dropped to 9,710.

No baby boom in four-day schools

Teen pregnancy is also hard to track. Like crime, rates have steadily dropped throughout Idaho, from 23.8 pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15-17 in 2008, to just 11.1 pregnancies per 1,000 in 2013.

Historically, those rates have varied county by county, too: Custer County, which has one high school in Mackay and buses other high school students to a four-day school in Challis, consistently has some of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the state, while Gooding County, which now has four high schools on a four-day schedule, consistently has among the highest rates.

Pregnancy rates per 1,000 females ages 15-17

*Note: Idaho Reports chose a sampling of counties across the state in which the majority, or all, schools in the county are on a four-day schedule.
Source: Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics

Superintendents and school leaders said they have seen no difference in pregnancy rates after transitioning to a four-day schedule, though nearly everyone interviewed by Idaho Reports said they hadn’t considered a possible link between the shift in high school schedules and teen pregnancy.

Hagerman Superintendent Eric Anderson, whose district just transitioned to the new schedule in the 2015-16 school year, said while child care was a concern for parents and school leaders, no one brought up pregnancy or juvenile crime.

Shoshone Superintendent Dr. Rob Waite has worked at three districts during their transitions to four-day schedules, and said teen pregnancy and juvenile crime was never a concern at any of his former school districts.

Mackay Superintendent Leigh Patterson said his 38 high schoolers stay involved with FFA, school government and athletics — enough activities to provide a distraction. “Here, our kids are busy,” Patterson said.

A shifting work culture

While the kids stay busy, their parents and their employers are adapting, offering more supervision for children.

In Hagerman, one of the community’s largest employers, Idaho Power, already operates on a four day schedule, Anderson said. Shoshone area employers also adapted, Waite said, and many parents take advantage of the free Friday to attend optional school activities with their students.

Anderson acknowledged that while Hagerman School District had a lot of input from parents before transitioning to a four-day schedule, not every family chimed in, and there could be single or working parents who struggle with child care. But a lack of communication between some families and schools isn’t unique to four-day schedules, he noted, and child care on Fridays was among the major concerns for district leaders before they made the transition.

In Bear Lake County, child care has always been on working parents’ minds. Sheriff Brent Bunn said most residents work rotating shifts, either at the hospital or at plants like Agrium and Simplot in neighboring counties.

“A lot of people in our area work shift work anyway so I don’t think there’s any impact on child care or anything like that,” Bunn said, adding several of his deputies have school-aged children, and they’ve never mentioned child care issues.

“For work wise, I think everybody enjoys having the three days off every week,” Bunn said. “Kids and staff as well.”

For more on Idaho’s four-day schools, catch up on the in-depth series from Idaho Education News. And don’t forget to watch the Nov. 20 episode of Idaho Reports, airing Friday at 8 pm or Sunday at 10:30 am MT/ 9:30 am PT on Idaho Public Television. You can also watch it online after it airs on idahoptv.org.


Otter to Obama: Halt refugee resettlement

Today, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter called on President President Barack Obama to halt refugee resettlement to the US until the country strengthens its border security.

Otter is en route to a Republican Governors Association meeting in Las Vegas, but his spokesman, Jon Hanian, said his concerns are mostly on refugee resettlement, though Otter has always wanted stronger border security in general, Hanian said.

“We’ve had this horrible attack from an entity that states they are putting people in the refugee stream that are coming to western lands to harm main and kill,” said Hanian.

Hanian also pointed out that the federal government is in charge of refugee resettlement, and the states have no ability to opt out of the program.

“They need to do a better job of explaining this program,” Hanian said.

In one part of the press release, Otter vowed to “use any legal means available to me to protect the citizens I serve.” Hanian said those legal means are yet to be determined, and that the topic will be up for discussion at the governor’s conference.

The relationship between refugee resettlement and terrorism is murky. The United States resettles more refugees than any other country — with a ceiling of 70,000 for fiscal year 2015 — but terrorism charges are rare.

But one hits close to home: Earlier this year, a federal jury convicted Fazliddin Kurbanov, an Uzbek refugee, of terrorism charges. Kurbanov was arrested in Boise in 2013. And while one of the Paris terrorists is suspected of entering Europe as a Syrian refugee in October, most of the identified terrorists were longtime residents of France or Belgium, and some of them were born in Europe.

None of the 9/11 attackers came into the country as refugees. All entered the country on temporary visas.

While governors don’t have the ability to halt refugee resettlement, they do have the ears of their congressmen, who do have the ability to change laws regarding refugee programs. If a majority of governors called for changes to resettlement policy or federal screening processes, it could result in legislation. (And expect it to be a topic of conversation at this week’s Republican Governors Association meeting.)

Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, said his office has met with Otter’s assistants to explain the refugee program. He also pointed out that the state administered refugee resettlement in Idaho until 1997, when then-Gov. Phil Batt opted to privatize the program.

“Whenever I hear ‘We don’t know anything about it,’ it’s not for lack of effort to try to create an understanding of how the program works throughout the entire state, the entire community,” Reeves said.

Reeves said halting the resettlement program isn’t the answer, but he isn’t against strengthening security screenings for refugees, saying it could help bolster the public’s confidence in refugee resettlement. “I don’t want to bring people into this country who don’t belong here, who don’t want to be here, who want to harm others,” Reeves said. But, he added, “I also hate to see people screened out when there is no real reason for them to be screened out.”

Reeves also pointed out there are easier ways for foreigners to get into the country. “The refugee program is probably the most rigorously controlled process of any foreign national to enter the US,” he said.

Thirty five Syrian refugees have resettled in Idaho in the last six months, Reeves said. Of those 35, 20 are children.

You can read Otter’s press release below.




FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:                                                                             CONTACT:  Jon Hanian

November 16, 2015                                                                                                                                (208) 334-2100





(BOISE) – Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter called on President Obama today to halt the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program until the vetting process for all foreigners crossing U.S. borders is fully reviewed and state concerns about the program are addressed.


“It makes no sense under the best of circumstances for the United States to allow people into our country who have the avowed desire to harm our communities, our institutions and our people,” Governor Otter said. “The savage and senseless ISIS-driven attacks in Paris illustrate the essential inhumanity of terrorism and make it clearer than ever that we must make protecting our homeland from this threat our primary focus.”


In a letter to President Obama, the Governor urged him to join in shouldering the “shared priority” of safety for American citizens.


“While I understand that immigration and refugee resettlement are authorized under federal law, I am duty-bound to do whatever I can to protect the people of Idaho from harm,” Governor Otter wrote. “Instead of Congress rubber-stamping this program each year, we ask that you and Congress work with states and governors to thoroughly review this process and how states are affected.”


Meantime, he vowed to “use any legal means available to me to protect the citizens I serve.”


“It is my desire, and should be your goal, to reassure the people of Idaho that their views are respected and that consideration is given to enabling states to opt out of the refugee resettlement program,” wrote Governor Otter, who is traveling to Las Vegas on Tuesday for a Republican Governors Association meeting and will discuss the issue with his colleagues.



Public defense reform: Progress, but no consensus


Representatives Christy Perry, Lynn Luker, Janet Trujillo and Patrick McDonald listen to testimony during the Public Defense Reform Interim Committee meeting on Nov. 10. (Melissa Davlin/Idaho Reports)

For years, lawmakers, counties and attorneys have grappled with the issue of adequate public defense in the state of Idaho.

But this week, they started talking about a solution.

On Tuesday, the Public Defense Reform Interim Committee discussed the first draft of legislation that aims to reform indigent defense in the state. There are still plenty of details to hammer out before presenting a final bill to the full legislature in the 2016 session, but expect the debate to focus on two things: Funding and the state’s ability to enforce standards.

Adding an edge to the urgency: The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho’s lawsuit charging that Idaho’s public defense system is unconstitutional based on public defender workload, lack of statewide standards for public defenders, and, in some counties, nowhere for attorneys to consult clients in private.

The draft proposal would establish requirements for indigent defense attorneys, mandatory continuing legal education, workload controls, and funding mechanisms that split the cost between the state and counties. It would also allow for oversight from the statewide Public Defense Commission and review by county commissioners.

During the meeting, committee members took issue with almost every new section of the draft bill, though all agreed that changes to public defense in Idaho are necessary.

But much of the discussion focused on cost-sharing between the counties and the state, with the proposal suggesting the state pay for up to 15 percent of a county’s public defense costs, and how much oversight and enforcement power the Public Defense Commission should have.

Committee co-chair Christy Perry, R-Nampa, noted that a handful of counties have already told lawmakers that they will not comply with new standards — an argument for more robust enforcement standards, said Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls.

“We need them to step up. We need to say they are going to comply because that’s a constitutional right,” Trujillo said.

State Appellate Public Defender Sara B. Thomas agreed. She pointed out the existing public defense commission does have standards, but no ability to enforce them.

“We can promulgate any standard that you want, but if you don’t give us the ability to enforce it….. you may as well put it in the burn pile,” Thomas said.

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, expressed concerns about punishing counties that don’t, or can’t, conform.

“My point has been…. if you make the hill so steep that little counties in particular can’t climb it, they’re going to opt out,” Guthrie said.

All 10 members of the commission live in southern Idaho, and nearly all represent Ada, Canyon and Bonneville Counties, all of which have robust public defense systems. Just Guthrie lives outside those population centers.

But he brought up concerns that other rural lawmakers might have.

“I think if we don’t take the teeth out of this, it’s not going to pass the Legislature,” Guthrie said.

Perry noted that most stakeholders haven’t had much time to review the proposal, and their input will likely change the discussion even more.

“We expect them to come in December and address some of these issues,” Perry said.

Over the next month, lawmakers will suggest more changes to the draft legislation, and will receive suggestions from stakeholders. The next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 14.

“I would really encourage you guys to look at not what’s easy, not what can be done, but what will honestly make this system better,” Thomas said.

This week, Idaho Reports is taking an in-depth look at public defense reform efforts. Tune in at 8 pm Friday on Idaho Public Television, or watch online at idahoptv.org.


A timeline of the Wasden/DOE negotiations, plus DOE’s response to the impasse


Workers at Idaho National Laboratory. Photo by Aaron Kunz/Idaho Public Television

By Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz, Idaho Public Television

Overwhelmed by the complexities of the INL negotiations? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

Earlier this week, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office released copies of the written communication between him and Department of Energy officials concerning a proposal to bring in 50 spent fuel rods for research and development at Idaho National Laboratory. Last week, DOE announced INL would not receive the first of those two shipments after the two parties failed to reach a compromise. Here’s the link to the letters on Wasden’s site, as well as our earlier reporting and analysis on where those negotiations broke down. 

If you don’t have time to read every single letter, Aaron Kunz wrote a synopsis of each document. Check out his timeline at the bottom of this post.

After the document release from the Wasden’s office, Idaho Reports reached out to the DOE for comment. In a statement, a DOE spokesperson reiterated the department’s commitment to cleaning up the site, but said obstructing research and development wouldn’t accelerate clean-up.

“The Governor understands that turning away important research projects only harms the state further, and he has declared his support for the shipments and the research while continuing to stress the importance of the cleanup program. So have the Lieutenant Governor and every member of the Idaho Congressional Delegation,” the DOE spokesperson said. Below, you’ll find the full DOE response.

Idaho Reports also contacted Wasden’s office to ask if he and DOE officials are still communicating regarding the second shipment. “I remain hopeful that DOE is willing to sit down and engage in meaningful negotiations,” Wasden said. “I’ve proposed a pathway forward and they know the details of that proposal. They know how to reach me.”

If you haven’t already, watch our Oct. 16 episode of Idaho Reports, in which we explore in-depth the controversy surrounding the proposed shipments of spent fuel rods.

Full statement from Department of Energy spokesperson regarding INL spent fuel rod shipments

“Recent accounts of the proposed DOE shipments of research quantities of spent nuclear fuel to the Idaho National Laboratory have obscured a few very important points.

First, we are talking about small amounts of material – about one hundred pounds of “heavy metal” (principally uranium) per shipment. We don’t view this as “waste” – these materials are required to conduct research that is important to the future of nuclear power in the U.S. and abroad.

Going back to the 1995 Settlement Agreement, DOE committed to the State of Idaho to make Idaho’s national laboratory its lead laboratory for nuclear energy research. In keeping with this commitment, DOE has invested nearly half a billion dollars in new INL facilities and equipment over the past ten years.

The INL has the people and facilities necessary to carry out the proposed research projects safely and efficiently. So naturally, DOE first proposed to conduct these research projects at the INL. However, given the broad range of nuclear research capabilities across the DOE national laboratory system, and as underscored by our recent and reluctant decision to conduct the first research project elsewhere, DOE has other laboratories that can do much of the work that has been proposed for the INL.

The greatest technical challenges facing nuclear energy – and many other clean energy technologies – have to do with materials. In order to achieve its full potential as DOE’s lead nuclear energy research laboratory, the INL will continually need to build and grow its nuclear materials development and examination expertise. That means the INL will periodically want and need to pursue research projects that require access to small quantities of the most modern spent commercial reactor fuel and other radioactive materials.

All sides are committed to completing the cleanup of legacy wastes and agree that curing the missed DOE site cleanup milestones is essential. However, turning away important research projects will do nothing to accelerate the cleanup. From an operational standpoint, there is simply no connection between the research and the missed cleanup milestone.

And finally, the Settlement Agreement between DOE and the State of Idaho allows the Governor and the Attorney General to waive the suspension of the spent fuel shipments to the INL. The Governor understands that turning away important research projects only harms the state further, and he has declared his support for the shipments and the research while continuing to stress the importance of the cleanup program. So have the Lieutenant Governor and every member of the Idaho Congressional Delegation. We thank them for their support and reiterate our desire to maintain a world-class nuclear energy R&D laboratory in the State of Idaho.”

Timeline and Summary Of Written Negotiations on INL Between The Department of Energy and Idaho, by Aaron Kunz:

December 31, 2014: Letter from Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy, to Governor CL “Butch” Otter
• Outlines DOE’s desire to sent two shipments of research quantity spent nuclear fuel to INL.
• Each shipment is one cask of 25 spent fuel rods, totaling 40-50kg of heavy metal spent nuclear fuel.
• First shipment to be sent June 2015 from North Anna Nuclear Power Station for recycling research
• Second shipment to be sent January 2016 from Byron Nuclear Power Station for safe storage research
• Funding expected to bring $10-$20 million to Idaho annually for both shipments.

January 8, 2015: Letter from Otter to Moniz.
• Response to DOE saying Idaho supports proposed two shipments.
• 2011 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) is no longer operative because DOE is not in compliance with the 1995 Settlement Agreement due to missed deadlines starting December 31, 2012.

February 27, 2015: Letter from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden Letter to Moniz
• Reminder to DOE of the conditions of a possible waiver that is required for the DOE to send two shipments of spent nuclear fuel.
• Integrated Waste Treatment Unit, which would process liquid waste, (IWTU) must be up and running.
• Enforceable agreement signed to resolve non-compliance issues.
• Letter sent to DOE after Wasden heard reports that IWTU might not be up and running until spring 2016.

August 14, 2015: Letter from Wasden to John Kotek, Office of Nuclear Energy
• Wasden submits first supplemental agreement proposal.
• DOE must demonstrate “sustained” operation of IWTU before first shipment of spent nuclear fuel. (Successful sustained operation means actual treatment of sodium-bearing high level liquid waste. Treatment and packaging of 100-casks of dry solid high level waste.)
• DOE to ship TRIGA spent nuclear fuel and heavy metal fuel out of Idaho. The amount shipped will be more than the total of the two shipments coming to Idaho. (Net decrease of spent fuel at INL.)
• DOE must commit to return to compliance with the 1995 Settlement Agreement once the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) reopens following closure of WIPP due to a fire in 2014. That means packaging and shipping ground level transuranic waste by December 31, 2018. Retrieval and packaging of buried TRU-waste by December 31, 2019. DOE must place Idaho on a priority schedule once WIPP re-opens.
• Proposes that DOE be subject to $60,000-penalty for each day it fails to meet the terms of the supplemental agreement.

September 22, 2015: Letter from DOE to Waden.
• Letter responding to Wasden’s proposed amendment.
• DOE is prepared to remove equal quantities of spent nuclear fuel, but not greater than as Wasden has proposed. DOE considers Wasden’s amendment as “additional conditions.”
• DOE considers Notice of Non-Compliance Consent Order (signed in March) with the IDEQ as meeting obligations of missed deadlines including failure of IWTU to be up and running.

September 25, 2015: Letter from Wasden to Steve Croley, attorney at DOE
• Wasden requests face-to-face negotiations and highlights DOE’s non-compliance issues
• As of December 31, 2014, DOE has failed to comply with its obligation to ship 2,000 cubic meters of TRU-waste to WIPP in New Mexico after is was closed due to a fire on February 14, 2014.
• DOE was to have completed calcination of sodium bearing high level waste by December 31, 2012. This process is dependant on the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit, which as of today is still not up and running.
• Wasden notes that a state-issued waiver is the only remedy that Idaho has to enforce DOE meeting its timeline as outlined in the 1995 Settlement Agreement.

October 7, 2015: Meeting between Wasden and Croley
• Wasden asks questions for the DOE

October 8, 2015: Letter from Croley to Wasden.
• Response to Wasden’s questions at a meeting held on October 7, 2015.

October 13, 2015: Letter from Wasden to Croley.
• Wasden sends a second proposal agreement outlining the state’s requirements to issue waiver for two shipments of commercial SNF. New agreement proposal addresses three areas of concern.
• DOE must tell Idaho when IWTU will be opeartional or abandon the project and find an alternative technology for treating the liquid waste.
• DOE must commit to treating & packaging waste and make sure it’s “road-ready” for shipment to WIPP.
• DOE must either ship road ready waste to Texas or prioritize Idaho’s road-ready waste to be shipped to WIPP once it re-opens.

• Wasden indicates in his letter that DOE officials said in an October 9th phone call that they would be willing to remove two times the amount proposed to be shipped to Idaho in heavy metal fuel, and that Secretary Moniz would be willing to come to Idaho and at a press conference explain the benefits of the shipments.

October 20, 2015: DOE Attorney Steve Croley to Lawrence Wasden.
• Croley informs Wasden that INL will not receive the first shipment of spent nuclear fuel
• DOE believes that the “non-compliance consent order” signed with the IDEQ established an already acceptable and enforceable path for treatment of sodium bearing waste. These new deadlines mean the DOE is on the way to getting back into compliance with the 1995 Settlement Agreement.
• Croley describes Wasden’s proposal as “additional conditions” and is not realistic in exchange for the DOE sending a “small” amount of spent fuel sent to Idaho for research at the INL.

October 21, 2015: Letter from Wasden to Croley
• Wasden disputes Croley’s claim that his proposal constitutes “additional conditions”. He separates DOE’s non-compliance and DOE’s interest of two shipments of SNF as two distinct issues. While similar, not entirely the same. DOE is required to meet the legal requirement to remove nuclear waste from Idaho. But if it wants to bring additional SNF to Idaho it must agree to meet certain requirements.
• Wasden “disheartened” that DOE has been unwilling to engage in negotiations. Wasden feels it’s not “unrealistic” to ask DOE to comply with a voter and federal court-approved agreement. “I am asking for nothing more than what the federal government expects of private business,” Wasden wrote.


The Life And Death of the INL Negotiations


The Department of Energy Building in Washington, DC. (Photo by Aaron Kunz/Idaho Public Television)

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Public Television

At what point did negotiations between Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and the Department of Energy break down?

Last week, the DOE informed Wasden that it would not send the first of two shipments of spent nuclear fuel rods to Idaho National Laboratory for research and development. The announcement is the latest round in a months-long bout between DOE and Wasden concerning the proposed shipments and missed clean-up deadlines at the lab.

Communications between the Attorney General’s office and DOE officials, posted at ag.idaho.gov, show ongoing talks concerning the proposal. Wasden opposed the shipment because of missed cleanup deadlines, and has asked the federal government uphold its end of a 1995 agreement to get rid of stored nuclear waste at INL. (For more history on the INL and more on the fuel rod controversy, read our past coverage here, and watch our Oct. 16 episode here.)

In an Oct. 13 letter to Steven Croley and John Kotek of the DOE, Wasden offers another path forward with an amendment to the 1995 Batt Agreement. 

The proposed amendment would have given DOE the option of continuing with the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit project, which would process liquid nuclear waste, or terminate it and come up with alternative treatment technologies. Wasden also left dates flexible and up for negotiations. (Read more about the Integrated Waste Treatment Project and ongoing issues surrounding its operation here, from Luke Ramseth of the Idaho Falls Post-Register.)

Other sections of the amendment would have set deadlines for the treatment of calcined waste, as well as the retrieval, packaging and shipment of transuranic waste.

But in an Oct. 20 letter, DOE General Counsel Steven Croley said Wasden’s proposal was unrealistic.

“While the Department shares your commitment to the cleanup of the INL and to the resolution of the current issues regarding ISTU and transuranic waste, it is not realistic for us to establish the additional conditions you propose in exchange for allowing small amount of spent fuel for research work at INL,” Croley wrote.

Croley then informed Wasden that the first shipment of fuel rods would go to another unspecified facility.

Wasden took issue with the classification of his counter proposal as “conditions.”

“My October 13, 2015 proposal lays out a pathway to ensure the important research work at the INL continues,” Wasden wrote in an Oct. 21 letter. “The key to this pathway is reaching agreement on how to cure DOE’s defaults under the 1995 Settlement Agreement. I am disheartened that, to date, DOE has been unwilling to engage in negotiations to resolve these defaults. I do not think it is “unrealistic” to ask DOE to comply with a voter and federal court-approved agreement. I am asking for nothing more than what the federal government expects of private business.”

Idaho Reports will have more analysis on the INL negotiations throughout the week. In the meantime, read the letters for yourself here.


INL not receiving first of two fuel rod shipments. So what now?

By Seth Ogilvie and Melissa Davlin

Today, the Associated Press reports the Idaho National Laboratory will not receive the first of two scheduled shipments of spent nuclear fuel rods for research.

The announcement is the latest in an ongoing saga involving waste clean-up and nuclear research and development at the eastern Idaho site. Last week, Idaho Reports explored the controversy in-depth with key players in the fuel rod negotiations, which center on a 1995 agreement between the state of Idaho and the Department of Energy. Watch our story here, as well as our interview with John Kotek of DOE, in which he discusses other potential locations for the fuel rods.

The R&D associated with the spent fuel rod shipments would have brought an estimated $20 million annually to the state of Idaho, according to the AP.

Some big questions remain: What happens to the second shipment? And how will this impact INL’s future?

Below is an essay from Idaho Reports producer Seth Ogilvie on the controversial past and uncertain future of nuclear research in Idaho.

INL’s controversial past, uncertain future

The Idaho National Laboratory is a uniquely modern story that mirrors human existence in the 20th and 21st century.

Jack Zimmerman, Deputy Manager of the US Department of Energy’s Idaho Cleanup program, reflects back on the INL’s beginnings. “This area started in the 1950’s in support of the nuclear aircraft propulsion program,” he said.

A generation returned from battle in Europe and the Pacific. Scientists split the atom with apocalyptic results. The cold war was in its infancy, and science appeared to be the key to the standoff.

That science was taking root in Idaho.

On December 20, 1951, four light bulbs began to glow, and Idaho became inextricably linked to nuclear energy. The site had created the first usable electrical power from nuclear fission.

Over the next decade, southeast Idaho was home to numerous tests, countless discoveries and the first nuclear-powered town — Arco, Idaho.

Then, on January 3rd, 1961, a nuclear reactor core meltdown killed three people in the desert outside Idaho Falls. Lead coffins became their final resting place.

Across the globe, one day later, Erwin Schrödinger, a creator of quantum physics, the science that created nuclear energy, died.

At the time, nuclear power was in its infancy. It was like the cat Schrödinger talked about in his famous thought experiment, which borrowed from nuclear science and posited that a cat in a box could be both dead and alive until observed.

Until this point, nuclear energy could be both dead and alive. It could be a savior or a curse, a bomb or a solution to the world’s energy needs. Its form could be all these things, just as Schrödinger’s cat could be both dead and alive.

The INL and nuclear power was shedding its innocence just as the U.S. did throughout the sixties.

In the decades after the tragedy, innovations were made in Idaho. Nuclear energy became safer and more reliable, but public perception was changing.

The environmental movement began to take hold, ironically inspired by pro-nuclear informational magazines and films from the Atomic Energy Commission.

The Cuban missile crisis came and went; Sputnik launched and the space race won. The cold war’s nuclear standoff didn’t kill off mankind, but the fears it created transferred easily to nuclear power.

By the 80s, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl created a crescendo of “no nukes” sentiment that stalled nuclear energy projects across the United States.

But in Idaho, the attitude was a bit different. In 1982, a voter initiative supporting nuclear power and banning any prohibition of its use passed resoundingly with almost 61% of the vote.

At the same time, nuclear waste was piling up at the INL, setting the stage for a standoff between Idaho and the federal government. In 1988, Gov. Cecil Andrus sent a police car to block a train shipment of waste, then sued the Department of Energy and the Secretary of Energy in 1991 in an attempt to stop waste shipments to INL.

The standoff ended with the 1995 Batt settlement agreement, which would compel the DOE to clean up waste in exchange for INL accepting any more shipments. “The people made it extremely clear they didn’t want any waste above the Snake River Aquifer,” Gov. Phil Batt recalled in 2015.

Congressman Mike Simpson believes it was an agreement about cleanup. “The goal of the agreement was to get the government to clean up these sites, and that’s what they are doing,” Simpson said.

In 1996, a somewhat confusing voter initiative that would have undone the settlement was defeated with almost 63% of the vote. The agreement laid out guidelines and milestones for waste cleanup that would stay in place until today.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden doesn’t think all those milestones are being met. “The problem is they missed their milestones on the true waste, and on the liquid waste,” Wasden said. “The contract says the sole remedy for missing those milestones is that we preclude them from bringing that waste in.”

But Sen. James Risch thinks the DOE is doing its best. “We have a contractor over there that is working very hard at making the process work, and instead of looking at this very small aspect, we should be looking at the rest of those things. We all want this cleaned up. The bottom line is everyone is on the same page there. The exact details, we may have some disagreements on,” Risch said.

As of today, the timeline to get the INL’s Integrated Waste Treatment Facility up and running is more than two years behind schedule, and the price tag increases by roughly $3 to $5 million dollars every month.

“I think our biggest failure was probably not recognizing the complexity of what it really takes to start up a facility like this – it’s a unique, one-of-a-kind application to process waste like this,” Zimmerman said.

The delays, when viewed through the lens of the agreement, stalled negotiations and prevented the first of two shipments of spent fuel rods from coming to the INL to be used for future research.

The agreement, however, has multiple interpretations.

Former Sen. Larry Craig worked with Batt during the creation of the agreement, and told Idaho Reports in September he doesn’t want the agreement to be too oppressive. “Should it be a straight jacket? Should it prevent our state from taking on new missions or modified missions?” Craig said. “It was never intended to be a straight jacket. It was intended to force the government to do what it was supposed to be doing when it relates to cleanup and protecting our environment.”

Former Gov. Andrus doesn’t view the restrictions as a straight jacket. He sees them as essential. “They are in violation of the law. DOE should follow the law just as any citizen of Idaho should follow the law,” Andrus said.

The congressional delegation fears the attorney general’s interpretation of the agreement could put the future of the site in jeopardy.

“It is a much bigger deal than whether this one project gets to do its research at this laboratory,” Sen. Mike Crapo said. “There is a pretty significant competition between the laboratories in the U.S as to who gets the various missions and opportunities to conduct research. I think Idaho should be very proud of the research that is done at the INL and should be very strongly supportive of the research missions that are proposed to be brought there.”

Outside of the agreement, the delays and the competition, Idahoans and our leaders need to figure out what we want the INL to be, and what we’re comfortable letting them do.

American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard sees government research and development projects like the INL as crucial to America’s future. “When you look at research in the energy area, particularly out at the INL and the major labs that are important for national security and our nation as a whole, there is an important role for R and D dollars… you’re looking at things the public doesn’t look at, most scientists wouldn’t normally look at, or people would fund.” Gerard said.

Crapo sees the INL research as a key to the US’s energy future. “I think one of the core futures for the lab is in nuclear research. I think nuclear energy should be one of the key components of our energy policy, and the INL should be the leader on nuclear power.” Crapo said.

Right now, clean up takes up the large majority of time and money at the INL. If it happens on schedule, the high-level waste will be gone by 2035.

Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance is sympathetic to the INL’s difficult cleanup effort. “It will happen when it happens. I think the worst thing that we could do is to try and rush it. Clearly the facility has gone through a whole series of glitches, but a glitch would be so compounded into a really major problem if you added radioactive waste to it. I just think we have to be patient,” Brailsford said.

If the patience pays off, what’s left for southeast Idaho? Can alternative research grow into the new mission, or is the site’s only chance for survival linked to the nuclear energy that makes up the core of its mission now?

“If you’re a library that houses the world’s best books that people come to study and research, and all of a sudden you say you can no longer take any books in… you are now a static source of knowledge,” Craig said. “Do you live or do you die? You die.”

“Right now we have people in our state that are saying don’t allow any new books into the lab,” Craig added. “Because we don’t want any more knowledge there because it may be an environmental risk. My answer is let the new books in but make sure they’re controlled monitored and watched appropriately.”

But can we go back to that innocence where science could solve all our problems, and answers can be found in books?


Idaho Reports web extra: Full interview with DOE’s John Kotek, plus link to show

Idaho Reports initially planned to interview John Kotek for about 15 minutes for our October 16 show. But Kotek — Acting Assistant Deputy for the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, and the Obama administration’s nominee to take over full time in that position — had more interesting things to say than we could fit in that segment.

So once again, here’s a web extra to supplement the show. And if you didn’t see Friday’s episode, here’s a link to check it out. It focuses on the future of INL with input from Congressman Mike Simpson, Sen. James Risch, Sen. Mike Crapo, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, former Sen. Larry Craig, and former Gov. Cecil Andrus