When U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz visited Idaho National Laboratory earlier this week, he expressed frustration over his department’s inability to send nuclear fuel to the lab for research.
He said preventing entry of the fuel could impact the lab’s future research capabilities, and affect the country’s ability to meet international research agreements. “We simply will not be able to accomplish our goals, to put it bluntly,” he said.
Moniz did not directly address the 1995 Settlement Agreement in his remarks. The document regulates federal nuclear fuel and radioactive waste cleanup operations in Idaho. It is the reason Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has been able to prevent entry of the spent fuel shipments, as a consequence for the U.S. Department of Energy not meeting a major waste cleanup requirement.
But the secretary’s comments nevertheless brought renewed attention to a long-simmering debate in Idaho: After more than 20 years, does the landmark agreement between the state and federal government need to be renegotiated? Should it better reflect today’s nuclear research and cleanup realities, while still holding DOE accountable for past actions?
Many officials and experts say yes. Updating the agreement would allow INL to carry out its nuclear energy research mission independently of DOE cleanup operations on the desert site. It might move certain radioactive waste cleanup deadlines, to make them more realistic. And it could help to ensure a new type of modular nuclear reactor is built in eastern Idaho.
But others argue that the document — signed by Idaho, DOE and the U.S. Navy, and settling a lawsuit filed by the state — should remain as it is. Renegotiation could only weaken Idaho’s power to regulate DOE, a notoriously untrustworthy agency, they argue. Other states with federal nuclear research and cleanup operations can only wish they had similar sway over the feds’ actions, they say.
The Post Register this week gathered a wide range of opinions on the future of the 1995 Settlement Agreement, and whether there might soon be a serious effort to renegotiate it. Here is what they had to say:
Lawrence Wasden, attorney general
In an emailed response to questions via a spokesman, Wasden said he “recognizes that there may be certain aspects of the 1995 Settlement Agreement that may be ripe for renegotiating, or tweaking.”
He said he has shown a willingness to make adjustments to the agreement in the past, including a memorandum of understanding with DOE in 2011 and an addendum with the Navy in 2008.
But Wasden said disconnecting the DOE’s cleanup and lab functions — a major undertaking that several state and federal officials have called for — would “undermine the purpose of the agreement,” and “is not an option.”
The agreement, as it stands currently, “provides the only leverage — language allowing the state to preclude shipments of spent fuel — to keep the DOE on track,” Wasden said.
He added there have yet to be any “formal overtures” from the DOE to his office to begin a renegotiation of the agreement.
C.L. “Butch” Otter, governor
The governor disagrees with Wasden on whether to let spent fuel shipments into INL, though he has been publicly quiet about it. A waiver to allow spent fuel in regardless of DOE missing cleanup deadlines requires approval from both Otter and Wasden — and Wasden has thus far refused to sign.
But Otter is not in favor of renegotiating the Settlement Agreement, his spokesman Jon Hanian said.
In an emailed statement, Hanian said the governor “remains committed to the ongoing mission at the INL which includes the need to have access to limited amounts of spent fuel for research.”
He noted that the 2011 memorandum of understanding between the state and DOE already allows for the limited research quantities of commercial spent nuclear fuel to be sent to the lab, assuming the waiver is signed.
“Therefore we do not believe there is a need to renegotiate the landmark agreement,” Hanian said. “Governor Otter views the ability of the lab to access those limited quantities of spent fuel as not only important for our national security but also the future of the lab itself.”
Cecil Andrus, former governor
Andrus, who hammered out the agreement with another former Idaho governor, Phil Batt, has made it clear for years that he thinks the Settlement Agreement should stay as is. Changing it would only weaken the state’s power, he said.
“The ‘95 Agreement is the only vehicle in existence to force (DOE) to put some of their money and effort into the cleanup,” he said in an interview this week. Andrus said the department’s top priority should be ensuring 900,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste is cleaned up as quickly as possible.
The agreement, he said, “is all we have to protect the people, and to give that away is ludicrous.” He said the reason some at the lab and elsewhere would like to see the research mission separated from cleanup is simply to bring more spent fuel, or “waste,” into Idaho.
“Doggonit, I don’t have an axe to grind at my age,” the 85-year-old said. “I just want a place that’s safe, secure and economically stable for my grandkids. We owe it to them.”
Mike Simpson, U.S. Representative
“I do think that we need to take a fresh look at the 1995 Settlement Agreement,” Simpson said in an email via a spokeswoman. “I have been disappointed that the INL continues to risk losing millions of dollars worth of research because of DOE’s inability to negotiate with the State of Idaho on bringing small quantities of spent fuel into the state.”
Simpson noted that DOE has changed its ways since the 1990s. It has been “working diligently” on figuring out how to get the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit operational, he said, and has improved communications with state officials on cleanup progress.
“I think a review of the Settlement Agreement would actually reveal that the DOE has been very successful in achieving the majority of their commitments to the state of Idaho, and updating the agreement would also allow for some flexibility to prevent the INL from losing out on opportunities due to challenges outside their control,” Simpson said.
Bart Davis, Idaho Senate majority leader
Davis said he is “supportive of a conversation” that leads toward renegotiating the agreement. He said the conversation has already begun, to a limited extent.
“This is a document that is now more than 20 years of age,” he said in an interview. “Even the best minds at the time, which were great minds, could not foresee everything that has happened in the last 20-plus years.”
John Grossenbacher, former INL director
Grossenbacher left the lab last year, and is now co-chairman of Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission. Before leaving INL, as the two spent fuel shipments continued to be banned, he advocated for de-linking the lab’s research work from its cleanup operations under the Settlement Agreement.
In an interview Friday, he said the Settlement Agreement was “extraordinarily important,” and has been effective in giving the state leverage over the federal government regarding cleanup.
But Grossenbacher said the agreement wasn’t designed to deal with the evolving nature of a national laboratory, such as its need to accept spent fuel shipments to conduct research. He said there is “fierce competition” among labs for a limited amount of federal nuclear research funding. When INL can’t accept nuclear fuel to conduct research, he said, “all it does is incentivize our competitors.”
A full renegotiation of the agreement isn’t “urgent,” Grossenbacher said. But he thinks an ongoing discussion evaluating possible changes to the document’s provisions and priorities is warranted.
Beatrice Brailsford, Snake River
Brailsford, the nuclear program director for the watchdog group, said her organization opposed the Settlement Agreement when it was first signed, because it was seen as too weak. “But over the years it has proven to be a fairly useful tool for Idaho,” she said.
“If we renegotiate the Settlement Agreement now, I think we would not be in a position to get near as good of a deal,” Brailsford said.
“The DOE is always looking for places to put nuclear waste,” she added. “So if we don’t have the agreement, we would be very vulnerable.”
Herb Bohrer, INL Citizens Advisory Board chairman
Bohrer said renegotiation of the Settlement Agreement isn’t needed. It would be unlikely to push DOE to conduct its cleanup operations any faster or differently, he said.
“The milestones that were set up were realistic at the time, and changing the agreement to reflect current technical challenges might make some people feel better, but it’s not going to change anything,” he said.
Dan Yurman, nuclear energy and policy expert
Yurman, who worked at INL for years and is now a nuclear blogger and consultant in Cleveland, said a renegotiation of the agreement will be necessary in coming years to account for a major project planned at the desert site — a small modular nuclear reactor.
The first-of-its-kind 600 megawatt NuScale small modular reactor, which won’t be completed until 2024 at the earliest, would generate waste — commercial spent nuclear fuel. Like other fuel from government sources stored at the site, the fuel will have nowhere to go, Yurman said, until an underground repository is sited and built decades from now.
As it is, the agreement doesn’t have any provisions for a commercial reactor that is generating waste. It also states that DOE must remove stored spent nuclear fuel from Idaho by 2035, though the new reactor would be operating, and generating spent fuel, well beyond that time.
If provisions to accommodate the NuScale plant aren’t added to the agreement, the project’s investors could look elsewhere. One destination could be Wisconsin, where state officials have recently been angling to land a small modular reactor project, Yurman said.
“Times change, and if you want the lab to have a future, and you want NuScale to be successful, maybe it’s time to take a second look” at the agreement, Yurman said.