Hardly anyone these days will say more nuclear waste should be brought into Idaho.
So, most Idahoans would support the slogans that are being bandied about by two political groups: “Stop the shipments” and “Get the waste out.”
The only problem is: One of those groups is pushing a statewide initiative on November’s ballot, while the other is fighting it.
The initiative, Proposition 3, would void Gov. Phil Batt’s 1995 agreement with the federal government to allow 1,133 more waste shipments to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory in return for waste cleanup and promises of waste removal within 40 years.
The initiative also would require legislative approval and a vote of the people for any future nuclear waste agreement with the feds.
Initiative supporters say the agreement with the feds is a back-room deal that’s full of loopholes - and the people ought to have a say in the matter.
Opponents say canceling the agreement would leave Idaho wide open to unlimited shipments of waste - including thousands of tons of waste from commercial nuclear power plants which the federal government will begin receiving within two years.
It’s a complicated issue that’s deeply colored by politics.
Gov. Phil Batt angrily interpreted early criticism of his deal as a personal attack. Outnumbered Democrats in the Legislature tried to force legislative action on the issue but quickly were quashed by GOP leaders. People on both sides of the issue say more public involvement and openness might have led to a better agreement and certainly would have meant less dissension.
“Whatever agreement came out of a back room is therefore subject to misunderstanding, differences of opinion, a lack of knowledge, a lack of consensus,” said David Leroy, a Republican and former Idaho lieutenant governor who served as U.S. nuclear waste negotiator under President Bush.
Experts say that while the deal has its weaknesses, so does the initiative. “There are folks out there who would like to see INEL closed down and somehow, magically, all the waste materials sent somewhere else,” said Richard Stallings, a former Democratic congressman from southeastern Idaho who succeeded Leroy as U.S. nuclear waste negotiator. “It’s not going to happen.”
Without some kind of agreement, Idaho is an easy target for a federal government that’s saddled with a growing load of unwanted radioactive waste, Stallings said.
“We are an ideal short-term repository. We’ve got tons of it sitting out there, and how can you argue that more would be less safe than what’s there?”
Stallings says Batt was right to negotiate, though he does have deep concerns about the agreement. He says he believes Idaho could have gotten a better deal, more money and better guarantees.
But, Stallings said, “we elect the man, he’s there for four years, we trust his judgment, and if we disagree, there are a variety of ways to express that disagreement. But I’m not sure the initiative is one of them.”
Attorney General Al Lance argues that the initiative is unconstitutional because it would void a contract that he and Batt legally were empowered to sign for the state. If the initiative is passed, Lance plans to challenge it in court.
But John Peavey, spokesman for the pro-initiative group Stop the Shipments, calls the governor’s agreement “a fraud” and contends it is designed “to finish the job of turning Idaho into a nuclear waste dump and processing center.”
Peavey, a former Democratic state senator whose Carey ranch is within 50 miles of the INEL site in southeastern Idaho, long has crusaded against nuclear waste there. INEL sits in an earthquake zone, near possible volcanic activity and over a significant drinkingwater source.
“We’re setting ourselves up for a world-class Chernobyl,” he said.
Peavey’s group has focused on two clauses of the governor’s agreement it says are loopholes that allow unlimited waste shipments. But Kathleen Trever, a deputy attorney general who helped negotiate the agreement, says they’re nothing of the sort.
The first clause says some spent nuclear fuel, beyond the 1,133 shipments, can be brought to INEL for testing if it is removed within five years. Trever said that applies only to small quantities being used in scientific work - not tons of waste.
The second says that if a required environmental impact study points to something not included in the agreement, the Department of Energy or the Navy may request that the agreement be modified to match that result. But Trever said Idaho would make the decision whether to grant such a request.
Lance, who called a press conference last week to speak out against the initiative, said the environmental-study clause protects Idaho’s environment. The loophole argument is “180 degrees from the facts,” he said.
Initiative opponents say Idaho was lucky to win promises that the federal government will, for example, solidify dangerous liquid waste that sits over an aquifer at the INEL site.
“It’s not a perfect agreement, but it is an exceptional agreement,” said Peter Johnson, former head of the Bonneville Power Administration and a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee on the future of the U.S. nuclear industry. Johnson is chairman of the Get the Waste Out executive board.
Jim Weatherby, a political science professor at Boise State University, says this issue is a tough one for voters, particularly when the debate centers on legalistic details. “It really comes down to whom do you trust,” he said.
Lined up against Proposition 3 are the governor, the attorney general, the all-Republican congressional delegation and a coalition of business and government leaders from across the state.
Eastern Idaho businesses, including companies that do business with INEL, oppose the measure. Art Brown, president of Hecla Mining, and Jack Buell, Benewah County commissioner, head the North Idaho campaign.
Backing the proposition are the Idaho Democratic Party, the Snake River Alliance, a network of volunteers across the state and a passel of celebrities. State Sen. Mary Lou Reed, D-Coeur d’Alene, is among those speaking out for the measure, and Kootenai County Democratic activist Linda Payne is the North Idaho volunteer coordinator.
Celebrities have been part of the issue since actor Bruce Willis, a Hailey, Idaho, property owner, donated $25,000 to the signature-gathering effort to put the proposition on the ballot. Willis later gave another $11,000 for advertising.
The Get the Waste Out group was formed after the last campaign finance reporting deadline, but it must report its financial backers next week.
Polls commissioned by the Idaho Spokesman-Review have shown support for the initiative growing from 46 percent in May to 52 percent in September. Twenty-nine percent opposed the measure, and 19 percent were undecided.
On Thursday, the pro-initiative group will hold a benefit concert with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in Boise. The performers are donating their time, and a Southern California agent who specializes in “socially conscious concerts” came up with the idea.
“It’s incredible,” said Stop the Shipments spokesman David Proctor. “We did two ads and a little radio promotion, and it sold out in six hours.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PROPOSITION 3 Here’s what will appear on the ballot: Initiative requiring legislative and voter approval of agreements for the receipt of additional radioactive waste (in Idaho) and nullifying prior agreement. Initiative proposing new sections of Idaho law limiting the authority of state officials to enter into agreements for the receipt and storage of additional radioactive waste in Idaho. The initiative requires that any such agreement must be approved by the state Legislature and by the voters at the next biennial election before becoming effective. The initiative would nullify the prior agreement entered into by the state of Idaho and the federal government regarding the receipt of radioactive waste and would require that the state attorney general file a motion under the federal rules of civil procedure to set aside or vacate the federal court order which implemented the agreement. The initiative also defines certain terms used in the initiative. The initiative further provides that nothing in the initiative would limit the authority of the governor or the attorney general under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act or the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act. The initiative contains a severability clause. Shall the above-entitled measure proposed by Proposition 3 be approved?