Still stinging from a political lashing in January, Republican Gov. Phil Batt has so hardened his opposition to more nuclear waste storage that he has essentially turned his back on a solution.
Former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, who has discussed the problem with his longtime friend and successor and offered is advice, believes a solution is still feasible.
But Andrus is in agreement with former GOP Sen. James McClure, who is trying to work out a mutually acceptable deal, that Batt has little political room to maneuver right now.
The new governor acknowledges being urged to relent on new waste shipments in return for a facility to process radioactive waste at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. Andrus considered that plan, with certain conditions, three years ago in the midst of his temporarily successful court fight to halt waste shipments.
But Batt’s skepticism of federal officials has heightened dramatically as a result of his dealings with them in recent months. He does not believe they can be trusted to comply with the critical condition that no outside waste remain at INEL after being processed.
“I do not have much faith that we can reach an accommodation,” Batt said. “If that’s the case, we have no choice but to resist.”
Despite last week’s extension of the federal court ban on new waste shipments until the government’s environmental assessment is validated, Batt conceded that in the long run it will be difficult to stop new Navy waste shipments.
Still, his stand seems firm against trying to gain some benefit in terms of waste processing jobs at INEL before those shipments resume.
“A processing facility would tend to solve some of the problems we have there,” Batt admitted. “But we have to take our chances in court on that. You go to try and deal ahead of time and they just piecemeal you to death.”
The administration’s lack of trust in the Navy and Energy Department was underscored by its maneuvering to secure last week’s continued ban on waste shipments.
The governor and has advisers reportedly feared that the formal adoption of the environmental assessment would occur this weekend so waste shipments could move into the state on Monday - a holiday when there would be no access to the courts to stop them.
McClure, who is described by Batt as an “honest broker” trying to reach some accommodation on the issue, testified to the governor’s hardened position since a public outcry last winter. Batt was pummeled politically when he declined to stage an obviously futile court fight against eight additional Navy waste shipments covered by a 1993 agreement negotiated by Andrus.
McClure’s law firm has a general legal contract with Lockheed Idaho Technolo gies Inc., the primary contractor at INEL.
“Nobody said it would be easy,” McClure said after bumping up against the governor’s resolve.
“I think it’s fair enough to say that we’ve had a lot of assurances over a lot of time about what the government would do in the future,” McClure said. “The political situation is tough. I think there is a political box, and he didn’t construct it.”
Batt is feeling the pressure to maintain the militant tenor of the sixyear battle Andrus waged over waste with the federal government - a donnybrook laced with inflammatory rhetoric and threats.
Having left an early impression of acquiescence when he suggested Idaho should be paid if waste shipments resumed, Batt now seems to think his political box is so tight that he recently told Boise businessmen, “You, of course, can block the tracks and prevent it temporarily, and we may go through that process eventually.”
Andrus agreed that Batt’s acknowledged mishandling of the Navy waste in January makes it impossible for him to show the slightest interest in any deal that involves new waste shipments - even in exchange for a processing facility under the conditions Andrus set in his 1992 talks that produced no concrete proposal.
“That’s the practical politics right now,” said Andrus, who himself was never able to completely shut off the flow of Navy waste to INEL. “He caught flak because he made one little slip up front, being snookered by the admirals.”
But Andrus maintained that if the details of a waste-for-processor deal can be worked out - something Batt and his close advisers seriously doubt - the new governor could accept it without grave political fallout.
“If I were still governor and as long as they took care of all our waste first and all the provisos put forth, I think that’s a very good deal,” Andrus said.
According to experts, the millions of cubic feet of waste already stored at INEL would take years to process into more stable forms ready for permanent storage. But to make the investment that could easily top $100 million pay off, even more waste would have to be run through the facility. That would make it a regional, if not a national, processing center for both defense and commercial spent nuclear fuel rods.
And that weighs heavily on Batt.
“I don’t think Idaho ever wants to get in the game of saying we’re going to take spent rods from commercial plants,” he said.
McClure, whose efforts are being hamstrung by federal budget constraint, sympathizes. But he suggests that while Batt’s position makes political sense, it probably can be overcome legally.
“If the government really believes that Idaho is as good an alternative as they have - we’d like to insist it’s the best and only one - and they insist on pushing it, eventually they will probably force us to accept the waste,” he said.
But McClure sees himself as similar to most Idahoans who want to see the waste problem solved.
“We want to have a treatment plant built. In order to get the treatment plant built we may have to make some concessions. I think that’s not unreasonable, and that’s not an unreasonable deal.”