The Clinton administration on Friday awarded British Nuclear Fuels Inc. a $1.2 billion contract to process plutonium-contaminated waste at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory so it can be shipped to a permanent dump in New Mexico.
The announcement of the contract by Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary came 5-1/2 months ahead of the deadline required in the administration’s unprecedented 1995 nuclear waste deal with Idaho Gov. Phil Batt.
“This fits the letter and the spirit of the nuclear waste agreement,” said Batt, who won a hard-fought campaign in November for voter endorsement of the deal. The agreement permits dumping another 110 tons of radioactive waste at INEL over four decades, but also imposes a court-enforced timetable for cleaning up and removing most waste by 2035.
“You can speculate how much would have taken place without the agreement, but I don’t think there’s any doubt but that it expedited this,” Batt said.
Under the timetable, construction of the treatment plant must be completed by the end of 2002, with operations beginning three months later. INEL officials indicated those dates could be moved forward several months.
The plant will create 500 jobs in construction and 150 jobs afterward. It will treat plutonium-contaminated waste - tools, clothing, gloves and other material mostly from the closed Rocky Flats bomb trigger factory in Colorado - so it meets storage criteria at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Among other things, the material is reduced to a tenth of its current volume.
The first shipments of that waste from INEL to New Mexico must occur by May 1999 under the Batt deal, although the federal government plans to have the permanent dump open a year or more earlier.
Batt said O’Leary’s announcement validates the voter’s decision to back his agreement.
“Had the electorate overturned the agreement, given the budget pressures that now exist in Washington, D.C., it’s likely this facility may have been delayed for many years, decades maybe,” the governor said.
“I think we can now move from whether the agreement was wise for Idaho to how it can be implemented for Idaho,” Batt said.
As part of the contract with British Nuclear Fuels, Morrison Knudsen Corp. in Boise will handle some $200 million in engineering and construction.
The governor’s deal requires that all 65,000 cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste in eastern Idaho be shipped to New Mexico by the end of 2018. That is about 70 percent of the nation’s stockpile. The rest can be brought in for processing, but must be shipped out of Idaho within six months.
Batt said his staff is working on a plan for monitoring his agreement “to make sure we don’t let anything slip through the cracks. So far, the only timelines involved have been observed ahead of time, so I’m confident the department’s doing its best implementing it.”