A critical issue for the future of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) nuclear energy mission is unfolding in an area where the incumbent site contract on the R&D side of the house has little control. The issue is that advocacy for new nuclear missions for the R&D program by the State of Idaho and its voters depends very much on continued federal funding and rapid progress in the cleanup program. Neither the governor, the legislature, nor the voters make much distinction between R&D missions and cleanup programs. To them it is all the same Department of Energy.
When the government sneezes and cuts back on cleanup funding, the R&D program catches the cold. Given the dangerous nature of the nuclear wastes being cleaned up, the budget cuts make about as much sense as saving money by funding scooters for policemen instead of motorcycles. Who would have confidence in law enforcement under this scenario? It is the same with cleanup.
The Battelle Energy Alliance, known locally as "BEA," is not the contractor involved in cleaning up hazardous and nuclear waste on the Arco desert 45 miles west of Idaho Falls. Several other independent contractors are funded by the Department of Energy to cleanup the waste, manage spent nuclear fuel, and ship radioactive garbage to low level waste or geologic repositories. All of this work is paid for by the same agency -- the Department of Energy.
Cleanup progress is not the issue. What is the problem is the federal government is backing off of its promises to fund the cleanup program here and at other DOE sites across the country. Places Like Savannah River, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest Lab (Hanford) are facing the same challenges as Idaho. Every one of them has the same success factor as part of the equation for political support for science and engineering R&D missions. Cleanup funding must be sustained to gain the public's confidence in new projects. If you don't believe this just look at the record of some of the GNEP hearings that took place last year in Piketon, OH, and Morris, IL, where the public came out like swarms of angry hornets to oppose new nuclear missions.
In Idaho BEA plans to build a $2 billlion "Next Generation Nuclear Plant" (NGNP) on the desert in the next decade, and is diligently working toward that goals. It's materials and fuels research work shows real promise. That bright future may be throttled back if the cleanup program's latest funding challenges, spawned in the bureaucratic halls of the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) in Washington, DC, are not redressed by Congress. This is an annual exercise with OMB picking away at the $6 billion plus cleanup budget simply because it is such a big target.
At issue this year is DOE's request for 2009 of $5.5 billion for the environmental management (EM) program, a $168 million cut from 2008 levels. The proposed cuts drop the program back to levels below the level in 2005 when the program received $7.3 billion. In Idaho the proposed cuts could delay by up to two years construction of a facility to convert nearly 1 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste into a dry powder stored in steel casks. The transformation from liquid to dry powder will remove a threat to the Snake River Acquifer. The State of Idaho, which is a party to the Federal Consent Decree that governs cleanup progress, hasn't said anything so far, but it won't take long to hear thunder coming out of Boise.
A bleak funding picture across the country
Nationally, the news isn't much better. Chemical & Engineering News reports this week that cleanup of nuclear weapons sites across the country is underfunded, but DOE is cutting the program. According to the magazine,
"An audit shows that the cost to clean up extensive radioactive and hazardous waste contamination is likely to be as high as $305 billion, more than $50 billion higher than the Administration's earlier estimate. It also may take until 2062 to finish the job—more than 20 years longer than original estimates. Yet this year's cleanup budget proposal is $5.5 billion, the lowest level in the last 15 years for the huge cleanup program."
DOE officials acknowledge that the cuts for 2009 mean the department will not be able to meet cleanup milestones in Idaho and elsewhere. Assistant Energy Secretary James Rispoli said recently in a presentation that funding levels requested for 2009 mean that DOE "would not meet some of the milestones and obligations contained in all of the environmental agreements that have been negotiated over many years with regulators . . . regardless of the approach that is chosen and its associated level of funding."
Rispoli made his comments on Feb. 22 in Washington, DC, at the 2008 annual conference of the Energy Communities Alliance (ECA), a group that represents local communities adjacent to DOE sites. Rispoli must have come to the job with a thick skin, because this year he is really going to need it. DOE is facing unprecedented criticism from ECA community representatives, who say the proposed cuts will slow down cleanups at sites that have been promised increased funds.
Accoring to several nuclear industry trade newsletters, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), who chairs the congressional Nuclear Cleanup Caucus and represents communities adjacent to DOE's Hanford facility, told the 34th annual Waste Management conference in Phoenix Feb. 25 that the cuts are going to result in cleanup slowdowns at many sites in violation of existing cleanup agreements. Hasting is casting a wide net polling all the cleanup sites for information on milestones that will be missed under 2009 funding levels, in order to assess exactly how the budget request will impact the cleanup program.
Simpson takes a new media approach in Idaho
In Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson has taken a new tack in his efforts to restore the funding. In addition to the normal media channels, Simpson is also now getting his message out with a blog. John Revier, Simpson's Deputy Chief of Staff, writes that "Mike has placed a blog post in a Capitol Hill newspaper's website." The newspaper is the 'Hill' and this is Simpson's blog post. Simpson writes that along with Rep. hastings 22 other members of Congress have indicated their support for restoring the budget cuts.
Here are a few highlights.
- The challenges are enormous and the costs are staggering . . . the moral, contractual, and legal obligations of the Department of Energy (DOE) are without question.
- . . . the Bush Administration’s budget requests over the last three years for the EM Program have been in steep decline.
- I am dismayed by the apparent lack of commitment . . . to the promises made, contracts signed, and laws enacted that govern the cleanup of these sites.
- I am hopeful, and even confident, that Congress will stand by these sites and provide an appropriate level of funding . .
Write your Congressman to tell him you support this. He'll appreciate it.