How Long Will Nuclear Research Power Idaho's Desert Communities?

Feb 5, 2013

The Idaho National Lab (INL) is the nation’s lead nuclear research laboratory. It’s also an economic engine for eastern Idaho. There are fears that with big federal spending cuts - the INL could lose it’s ‘national lab’ designation or be closed altogether.

Employees at the Idaho National Lab work on a nuclear reactor.
Credit Idaho National Lab

That's why Governor Butch Otter created the Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission, to look at ways of keeping the lab’s mission relevant. The commission’s recommendations will be released Wednesday.

The Pacific Northwest has two national laboratories, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington and the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls.

Idaho Falls is a desert city of more than 57,000. Lane Allgood is the executive director of a local business association called Partnership in Science and Technology. He says a recent presentation to the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce drove home the lab’s critical role to the local economy.

“I asked the question to the group. How many of you contract with the DOE or have a contract with a DOE contractor to do work at the INL? And about a third of the hands went up," Allgood explained. "Then I asked them, how many of you have a business - have customers that are INL employees? And every single person in the audience raised their hand.”

Allgood represents business owners who have a stake in the INL. It’s been said that one in five jobs  depend on the lab. The 8,000 employees make on average $80,000 a year. Counting the contractors and sub-contractors, more than 24,000 jobs are supported by INL dollars.

The Idaho National Lab is already reducing the total amount of jobs at the site. Some of those jobs were part of a large cleanup mission. Those employees or contractors were digging up buried nuclear waste in the eastern Idaho desert so it could be shipped to New Mexico. Once the work finished - the employees left.

"So the real hope is that we would be able to grow the missions of the lab to replace those jobs. And while they have done a good job, we still are a little bit nervous about what the future holds," said Allgood.

That's why Allgood and many others who live here were excited when Governor Butch Otter created the Leadership in Nuclear Energy -- or LINE -- Commission. It was a sign that state leadership was behind keeping the INL relevant now and into the future.

Otter chose his state Commerce Director, Jeff Sayer, to lead the LINE Commission. Sayer says Idaho should be worried. It’s possible the federal government will consolidate some of the national labs around the country to save money.

“We need to be supportive of the INL because there is a lot of competition nationally for those research dollars,” said Sayer.

When the commission released a draft of its recommendations in December, one of them drew most of the attention: A proposal to revisit an agreement reached between the federal government and the state in 1995.

The agreement caps the amount of commercial nuclear waste that can be shipped to Idaho. It also provides the state the ability to fine the federal government if it doesn’t remove nuclear waste buried in the Idaho desert by 2035. Sayer says revisiting the agreement would have to benefit Idahoans, “...and my statement is very simple. The only reason or the only way that we would consider changing the settlement agreement would be to improve it.”

Sayer says the state shouldn’t rule out utilizing the Idaho National Lab as a temporary waste storage location, so long as the economic benefits are right and Idaho can store waste safely without contaminating the large underground aquifer. But the final recommendations won’t go that far. The report doesn’t call for the waste storage agreement to be renegotiated.

“It would be wrong for us to make those kinds of decision in behalf of the state until the state has the chance to talk about this some more,” explains Sayer.

Sayer’s commission calls on Otter to consider the options when it comes to the 1995 nuclear waste agreement.

But there are some who don’t even want to consider this as an option. Liz Woodruff, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, says she is concerned anytime she hears Idaho could be a temporary storage space for commercial nuclear waste.

“Most experts think that if nuclear waste moves, it’s only going to move once," Woodruff says. "And so anytime you hear that we might be a temporary repository for nuclear waste, you also have to also consider that waste - that temporary may become permanent.”

Woodruff says the INL isn’t suitable for nuclear waste storage for several reasons -- including the presence of groundwater and the lack of minerals like salt that help prevent leakage.

But right now, the country doesn’t have such a facility.

That why some in Idaho say its important to keep all options on the table.

Lane Allgood says he supports all 60 potential recommendations the Line Commission gave to Governor Otter -- even those that could lead to the import and storage of nuclear waste at the INL. “If I had a chance to sit down the Governor. I would say 'please adopt every one of these recommendations, they all will help us.'”

Allgood says it’s too early to say waste storage is right for Idaho. But it's best to have the discussions before dismissing the idea.