Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Criticism of INL waste agreement distorts reality


As director of the Idaho National Laboratory, I respectfully but strongly disagree with former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus in his public assessment of the agreement that Gov. Butch Otter signed with the Department of Energy on Jan. 6. This agreement allows INL to bring limited research quantities of used commercial fuel to the lab for examination and testing. I feel that Gov. Andrus exaggerated and distorted the facts, and I would like to correct the record.

The agreement does not authorize any additional quantity of used nuclear fuel or radioactive waste to be brought into Idaho beyond that which is already authorized by the 1995 Settlement Agreement. It simply designates that very limited amounts of used nuclear fuel from commercial power reactors can come to Idaho so that we can safely examine this highly valuable resource. The goal of this research is to improve the efficiency of our nation's 104 nuclear reactors. Contrary to what Gov. Andrus said, the Settlement Agreement has not been abandoned.

Gov. Andrus argued that the new agreement provides a path for "waste" to be "dumped" in Idaho. That argument is neither reasonable nor credible. The agreement clearly states that there is a restriction on how much used fuel can come to Idaho, and it's a very small quantity. It will be carefully selected based on its high research value. We will not be receiving any nuclear waste at INL.

Saying that waste has been "piling up" for 50 years at the INL site ignores the substantial progress being made by the Department of Energy and its cleanup contractors. Since the signing of the Settlement Agreement, no new waste or used fuel beyond that agreed upon by the state has been brought to Idaho. A good example of the progress being made is that a majority of the stored transuranic waste has been shipped to New Mexico. Additionally, a large amount of the targeted buried waste has been exhumed, sorted, characterized, packaged and shipped to New Mexico for disposal, and DOE is on track to remove all this targeted buried waste from the INL site well ahead of the agreed upon 2025 date.

In the past, my colleagues and I have heard potential customers and competitors say that "you can't do nuclear work in Idaho because of the Settlement Agreement." However, the agreement Gov. Otter signed on Jan. 6 reduces significant barriers to performing very valuable and important research and creates no additional burden or risk for the state. It enhances INL's capability and competitiveness. It demonstrates state support for the mission of INL, and it underwrites the lab's leadership role in nuclear energy research and development. The agreement improves the opportunity for continued growth in world-leading facilities and people at INL.

By allowing research quantities of used commercial fuel into Idaho, Govs. Otter and Batt and the attorney general have chosen to lead, and I applaud them. I have great respect for Gov. Andrus and his accomplishments. However, when a leader of his stature enters the public discourse, as he has in this case—and incorrectly implies that a decision has been made that should alarm Idaho's citizens because it will expose them to increased risk from activities at INL—the public record must be corrected.

John J. Grossenbacher is president of Battelle Energy Alliance and laboratory director of Idaho National Laboratory, east of Arco.

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