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For the week of Apr. 5 through Apr. 11, 2000

Trust before technology

The deal struck between the U.S. Department of Energy and activist groups, including the Snake River Alliance, was a wise compromise.

The DOE was right to can its plans for a waste incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). It was something the public feared.

The alliance and its allies were wise to drop a lawsuit that could have stopped the INEEL from dealing with any of the mixed waste—items contaminated by chemicals or radioactive particles—or at least slowed the process to an agonizing and expensive crawl.

The compromise was about more than protecting public health. It was about building trust between the DOE and the public.

The old Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of Energy and its private contractors spent more than 40 years alienating and misleading the public. When the DOE and its contractors began a public outreach program just a few years ago, precious little trust existed. Only recently were the doors that separated the scientists from the rest of us beginning to open.

Then one of the contractors blew it.

DOE had hired British Nuclear Fuels Limited, a private contractor, to install and operate equipment to process the waste.

However, BNFL lost public confidence when the British government recently discovered the company had falsified specifications on nuclear fuel rods shipped to power plants. It was the last straw for people located downwind in Idaho and Wyoming.

DOE could have done what it had done in the bad old days—shove the incinerator down the public’s throat or operate it in secret—but it didn’t.

It struck a classic compromise. Each side gave. Each side got. Both sides were winners. So was the public.

The Snake River Alliance preserved its right to criticize how the DOE is spending its money and the DOE preserved its ability to move ahead.

Eighty percent of the 1.8 million cubic feet of waste now sitting in stainless steel containers on enclosed asphalt pads will still be separated, suitably packed and shipped to its final resting place in New Mexico. This will allow the DOE to meet its legal obligation to the state of Idaho, an obligation that followed a hard-fought 1994 battle over the future of nuclear waste at the INEEL. It will also allow people to rest a little easier knowing they and their children are not unknowingly inhaling a little carcinogenic something that may have slipped through filters on the incinerator.

The DOE earned a little trust by offering a little respect for the concerns of ordinary people. That has been a long time coming.

Idaho’s U.S. Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Mike Simpson criticized the deal because they say the incinerator is safe. Maybe, maybe not. Only one thing is sure: Technology alone will not achieve the massive cleanup needed at the INEEL. Trust and sound technology surely will.


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