John Abbotts, former Sightline staffer and long-time observer of cleanup efforts in the Northwest, contributed a first draft of this blog post.

Last May, we posted a blog on cleanup progress and unfinished business at the Hanford site in south-central Washington. Hanford is part of the federal complex for atomic weapons and other military applications, and cleanup at such facilities is now taking place across the country.  The Northwest is home to another major nuclear cleanup effort:  Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in the eastern part of that state. 

INL, covering 860 square miles, is larger than Hanford and—astonishingly—about two-thirds the entire area of Rhode Island.  The laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, claims that it contained “the largest concentration of [nuclear] reactors in the world.” Over the years, INL built and operated 50 atomic reactors, including prototypes to train personnel for the U.S. Navy’s atomic-powered fleet. Only a few INL reactors remain in operation, but the site still stores spent nuclear fuel from Naval reactors.

Unsurprisingly, with so many reactors and so much waste in one place, INL is now saddled with a huge cleanup task.  In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed the Idaho site on its Superfund national cleanup list.   Cleanup of radioactive and chemical contamination has become a major activity at the Laboratory, and remediation is expected to take decades. 

  • Former Sightline staffer John Abbotts recently published an account of the INL cleanup in Remediation Journal.   A key part of the story starts in 1954, when the federal government began transferring radioactive transuranic waste containing plutonium and other elements of higher atomic number than uranium from the Rocky Flats, Colorado nuclear weapons plant to INL for burial.  The photo below shows barrels of waste from a Rocky Flats fire being dumped at the INL in about 1969

    Unsurprisingly, once the risks of the substances being dumped in Idaho became better known, Idahoans started fighting to keep their state from being used as a radioactive dumping ground.  In 1988, after the U.S. Department of Energy announced a delay in removing transuranic wastes from Idaho, Democratic Governor Cecil Andrus ordered the Idaho State Police to stop any rail cars bringing new wastes from Rocky Flats at the state border.  The resulting suits and counter-suits were punctuated by a 1991 cleanup agreement between Energy with the U.S. EPA and Idaho State government as joint regulators.  Finally, a 1995 settlement agreement named Energy and the U.S. Navy as the parties responsible for the cleanup, and the State of Idaho as regulator.  The 1995 agreement set enforceable milestones and deadlines, including the removal by 2018 of all federal transuranic wastes from Idaho, and removal of all Naval spent reactor fuel by 2035. 

    But the Department of Energy later claimed that it was only required to remove above-ground transuranic wastes, leaving a considerable amount of buried wastes.   In 2002, the state of Idaho—led this time by a Republican governor—sued again, and a federal district judge found that the 1995 Agreement specified removal of all transuranic wastes, not just the above-ground wastes.  A U.S. Court of Appeals upheld this decision, and in 2008 the federal government reached an agreement with the state to settle the suit.  Under the 2008 settlement, most transuranic wastes (exceptions are those with safety considerations, such as buried wastes that may ignite if excavated) are expected to be retrieved and shipped out of Idaho by 2028.

    Then in July 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy opened a new controversy.  The U.S. Congress gave Energy the responsibility for long-term storage and management of all elemental mercury generated in the U.S., and the Department designated seven candidate sites for mercury storage across the country, including Hanford and the Idaho National Laboratory.  Mercury isn’t radioactive, but it persists in the environment and builds up in living tissues.  Within weeks, Republican Governor “Butch” Otter announced that he would not allow the federal government to “make Idaho its mercury dump.” 

    Throughout this account, one interesting trend stands out: even in the supposed “red” state of Idaho, Republican public officials have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their Democratic counterparts to push the federal government to clean up contamination, and stop new waste from entering the state. It’s just one of many examples of how ostensibly “green” issues can sometimes cross the red-blue divide.