Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Richardson says government will meet nuclear agreement

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is assuring state leaders that the federal government will meet its obligations to ship plutonium-contaminated waste out of the state on time even thought it has canceled an incinerator to process it.

Richardson confirmed a legal settlement with environmentalists that puts on hold a $1.2 billion incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. He vowed to complete a revised waste treatment plant to process radioactive material tainted with other hazardous substances so it can be shipped to the government's permanent dump in New Mexico.

"Our action today reaffirms our commitment to act on this obligation, and allows us to continue to work with local and state officials to determine the best way to treat and dispose of this waste in an environmentally sound manner," Richardson said.

Under a 1995 agreement negotiated by former-Gov. Phil Batt, the federal government must treat and remove 65,000 cubic meters of long-lived, low-level waste from Idaho by 2018. It must ship 15,000 drums of the waste and complete the treatment plant by the end of 2003.

"If this action causes them to miss any of the milestones, then they are going to have big problems on their hands," said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

With the lawsuit settled, Energy officials hope to begin construction on the waste treatment plant as early as May. They estimated the cost of the remaining facilities at $500 million. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. has the construction and operations contract.

The incinerator was challenged by western Wyoming residents claiming its emisions would threaten public health and the environment there.

Richardson agreed to commission a blue-ribbon panel to study technological alternatives to incineration for handling plutonium-contaminated waste from sites outside Idaho as well.

Energy Department officials have said 75 percent of the waste can probably be handled by simply crushing and repackaging it for shipment to New Mexico.

Handling waste from other states could become a problem if there are technological delays at INEEL as the government tries to clean up the mess from Cold War bomb production.

"It's not just an Idaho issue, it's a national issue," Division of Environmental Quality Director Steve Allred said.

Changing the facility will add to the state's permitting cost, that has already run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Allred said.