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Energy | Environment

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

IDAHO FALLS — After more than a year’s worth of layoffs at the Idaho National Laboratory, people in this desert city worry things could get worse for the region’s largest employer — that it could lose its “national laboratory” designation or be closed altogether.

At the same time, hopes are running high that when an advisory panel’s recommendations on the future of nuclear energy in Idaho are made public Wednesday, they’ll serve as a roadmap for finding ways to keep lab’s mission relevant — and it’s workforce growing.

The Idaho National Laboratory 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 Lane Allgood, the executive director of a local business association called Partnership in Science and Technology. For Allgood, 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?’” Allgood recalled. “And about a third of the hands went up. 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.”

WATCH: Aaron Kunz’s video for Idaho PTV’s Idaho Reports:

According to Algood’s group, one in five jobs in the Idaho Falls area depends 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.

Thats why Allgood and many others who live here were excited when Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter created the Leadership in Nuclear Energy — or LINE — Commission. It was a sign that top leadership in the state 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 said 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,” he said.

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 spent nuclear fuel that can be shipped to Idaho. It also provides the state the ability to fine the federal government if it doesn’t treat all radioactive waste and remove all spent fuel from the Idaho desert by 2035. Sayer said revisiting the agreement would have to benefit Idahoans. He noted that the 18-year-old agreement, as currently written, sets such penalties at such a level that it could be cheaper for the federal government to break its agreement and leave spent nuclear fuel at the INL than to take on the cost of removing and safely transport it.

WATCH: a full interview with Jeff Sayer on Idaho PTV

“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 said.

Sayer said the state shouldn’t rule out the option of utilizing the Idaho National Lab as a temporary radioactive waste storage location — That is, so long as the economic benefits are right and Idaho can store spent fuel safely without contaminating the Snake River Aquifer — one of North America’s largest underground water bodies. But the final recommendations won’t go that far. The report doesn’t call for the agreement on radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel 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,” he said.

Sayer’s commission simply calls on Otter to consider the options when it comes to the 1995 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, said she is concerned anytime she hears Idaho could be a temporary storage space for nuclear waste.

“Most experts think that if nuclear waste moves, it’s only going to move once,” Woodruff said. “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 storing radioactive material 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.

The Obama Administration pulled the plug on Yucca Mountain, the congressionally approved location for commercial nuclear waste storage. President Obama has organized a blue ribbon commission to seek a new site.

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

Lane Allgood, the leader of the pro-business group, said he supports all 60 potential recommendations the LINE Commission gave to Gov. Otter — even those that could lead to the import and storage of radioactive material at the INL.

“If I had a chance to sit down the governor. I would say - please adopt every one of these recommendations,” Allgood said. “hey all will help us.”

INL-Produced video on radioactive waste and research material

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