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?