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Idaho lawmakers want nuclear waste ready to get trucked away

Idaho’s congressional delegation wants the U.S. Department of Energy to prepare spent nuclear fuel for trucking out of eastern Idaho ahead of a 2035 deadline.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this May 11, 2015, file photo, nuclear waste is stored in underground containers at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho. Idaho's Congressional delegation wants the U.S. Department of Energy to prepare spent nuclear fuel stored at its eastern Idaho site for trucking out of state ahead of a 2035 deadline. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler, File)

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Idaho’s congressional delegation wants the U.S. Department of Energy to prepare spent nuclear fuel for trucking out of eastern Idaho ahead of a 2035 deadline.

The two Republican senators and two Republican representatives in the letter sent Wednesday said the department could be readying the spent fuel for placement in protective trucking containers.

A 1995 agreement following a series of federal lawsuits requires the Energy Department to remove most of the spent fuel and other nuclear waste from the site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory.

“We encourage the Department to initiate activities needed to begin loading of spent nuclear fuel into a multi-purpose canister (MPC) at the Idaho National Laboratory using existing facilities,” the lawmakers wrote.

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Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Crapo and Russ Fulcher each signed the document sent to Energy Department Secretary Dan Brouillette.

However, the U.S. has no long-term storage facility to receive radioactive spent fuel. The creation of such a repository would require action by the Trump administration, Congress and states.

The Idaho lawmakers acknowledge the lack of a permanent repository in their letter, but they say preparing the waste for removal from Idaho should start anyway.

“We believe these modest steps toward demonstrating spent nuclear packaging capabilities at Idaho National Laboratory site will further the goals of the 1995 Settlement Agreement,” the lawmakers told Brouillette.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the U.S. has more than 99,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at 80 sites in 35 states. Most of the spent fuel is from nuclear power generation at commercial plants, with about 15% coming from the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program.

Some of that nuclear waste was being sent to Idaho for years until former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus and former Republican Gov. Phil Batt engaged in a series of federal court battles with the Energy Department resulting in the 1995 Settlement Agreement during Batt’s term that is generally seen as preventing Idaho from becoming a high-level nuclear waste dump.

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That agreement, with some exceptions, requires the Energy Department by 2035 to remove spent fuel and nuclear waste from its 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) eastern Idaho site in sagebrush steppe. The area is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Idaho Falls and sits atop a giant aquifer supplying farms and cities in the region with water.

The 1995 agreement has been altered several times over the years, including twice recently.

In November, Gov. Brad Little and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, both Republicans, granted a conditional waiver to the Energy Department that could allow research quantities of spent nuclear fuel into the state after years of blocking such shipments.

In February, Little and Wasden inked a deal with the Energy Department involving spent nuclear fuel from the lab's Advanced Test Reactor, clearing up that facility's future.

“While these agreements help ensure vibrant nuclear energy research and development at Idaho National Laboratory, they also require actions that will further protect Idaho’s environment,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Idaho National Laboratory is a huge economic driver in the state, with about 4,400 workers.

The U.S. Navy also stores spent fuel from its fleet of nuclear-powered warships at the site. That spent fuel is also covered in the 1995 agreement.

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