Idaho, Energy Department sign deal on spent nuclear fuel

Nuclear waste is stored in underground containers at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls.

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho granted a conditional waiver Thursday to the U.S. Department of Energy that could allow research quantities of spent nuclear fuel into the state after years of blocking such shipments.

The agreement announced by Gov. Brad Little and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden means the Idaho National Laboratory could receive about 100 pounds of spent fuel for experiments as part of a U.S. strategy to expand nuclear power and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The waiver requires the Department of Energy to first prove it can process 900,000 gallons of high-level radioactive liquid waste stored above a giant Idaho aquifer that supplies water to farms and cities.

The department has spent some $600 million trying to do that. It has failed so far, but reported progress earlier this year at its Integrated Waste Treatment Unit.

The deal announced Thursday makes it easier for the Energy Department to bring spent fuel for research into the state. It benefits Idaho by requiring earlier removal of other nuclear waste at a 890-square-mile site west of Idaho Falls that includes the Idaho National Laboratory.

Specifically, the 2019 Supplemental Agreement grants a conditional waiver to the historic 1995 Settlement Agreement reached by former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus and Republican Gov. Phil Batt. They had engaged in a series of federal court battles with the Energy Department resulting in the 1995 agreement during Batt’s term that is generally seen as preventing Idaho from becoming a high-level nuclear waste dump.

The Energy Department benefits in the most recent deal because instead of having to process all the radioactive liquid waste before it can bring in research quantities of spent fuel, as required in the 1995 agreement, it now under the conditional waiver only has to prove it can process some of the liquid waste.

“Nothing is more important than treating that liquid waste and protecting our precious aquifer,” Wasden said.

Idaho had been banning spent fuel shipments because the Energy Department missed a 2013 deadline to treat all the liquid waste.

The Energy Department has agreed to make sure that at least 55% of all transuranic waste (clothing, tools and other items contaminated with radioactive elements) shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico comes from Idaho. The department has also agreed to remove an additional 300 pounds of uranium, plutonium or enriched uranium from Idaho by the end of 2021 and has committed to a specified schedule to treat spent nuclear fuel from the Experimental Breeder Reactor II at the Idaho National Laboratory.

The laboratory is a huge economic driver in Idaho — some 4,400 people work there. Research on spent nuclear fuel could bring millions of additional federal dollars to the state.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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