Improved public relations and education about the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory could bring back some of the support it has lost, three Idaho legislators say.
"We've got a job to do to protect INEL," Sen. John Hansen said at a recent meeting of the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce's Legislative Committee.Hansen, Sen. Lee Staker and Rep. Con Mahoney, all Idaho Falls Republicans, suggested that a legislative tour of eastern Idaho - and particularly INEL - be reinstituted.
Staker said that controversy over waste management has caused some loss of support for INEL. "When you come over this year, you should be geared not to the economic benefits, but what's going on out there and what are they doing," Staker said.
The Idaho Falls Chamber and INEL officials make an annual trip to Boise during the legislative session.
Mahoney said Troy Wade, the Department of Energy's acting assistant secretary for defense programs, did a good public relations job when he was managing INEL, and INEL Manager Don Ofte has continued that tradition. But Mahoney said after the meeting that legislators also need to do a better sales job.
"People don't understand what's going on at INEL," Mahoney said. "Mention nuclear power and all they see is a mushroom cloud."
Mahoney said people need to be educated about "the real conditions at INEL, which in my opinion are the safest I've seen. The health-physics program is second to none and the technology is advanced."
Chamber members suggested having speaking teams visit other chambers, having INEL tours for every convention in Idaho Falls, and inviting critics such as Liz Paul of the Snake River Alliance to address the chamber.
"There's no doubt that we have to listen to the opposition," Hansen said.
Hansen suggested that Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, be invited to talk about the anti-INEL feelings in the Magic Valley.
"He can put into perspective what the situation is and what we might be able to do about it," he said.
Hansen said more needs to be spent on education to attract quality teachers. Staker said, however, that teacher salaries may not be as poor as they seem in relative terms, especially on the higher education level. Staker, a member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said that while teacher salaries in Idaho are low, so is the cost of living.
Mahoney acknowledged that more money was needed for education and that it was wrong for teachers to be spending personal funds for classroom materials. He said school curriculum needs to be changed to better prepare students for modern-day problems.