Randy Hayes, Associated Press
In 2002, radioactive waste is transported from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

BOISE — Tons of radioactive waste remain stacked over eastern Idaho's Snake River Plain Aquifer, where southern Idaho gets its water. But his staunchest critics now concede some good came of former Gov. Phil Batt's 1995 nuclear waste cleanup deal.

"I got everything I could get," Batt said in a recent interview.

What Batt got was a commitment by the federal government to completely remove all radioactive waste from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory by 2036, while also restricting new deliveries of nuclear waste to INEEL for temporary storage.

Even Twin Falls podiatrist Peter Rickards, who was so outraged by the agreement that he tried unsuccessfully to recall Batt in 1996, is no longer completely negative.

"There has been a slight amount of progress," Rickards admits, while quickly adding, "it is the least important of problems that are looming over our water supply that are being addressed."

That concern about the aquifer and the overall environment continues to linger, fueled by the federal government's efforts in court and Congress to change what state and environmental groups believe are key provisions of the agreement.

And there have been problems. The U.S. Department of Energy, which is overseeing the cleanup, was fined in 2002 for allegedly allowing radioactive material to leach into a nearby aquifer. Still, officials insist contaminated groundwater has not migrated beyond the laboratory's boundaries.

"The state is better off today than it was 10 years ago," says Jeremy Maxand, director of the Snake River Alliance that was among the leaders of the failed 1996 attempt to overturn the Batt agreement at the polls.

"Today, the state has oversight authority and authority to actually go on the site and investigate and review documents," Maxand says. "But I don't trust government bureaucrats who live thousands and thousands of miles away from our state and don't drink our water to make decisions about the cleanup."

Actor Bruce Willis spent $145,000 in 1996 on the failed campaign to convince Idaho voters to reject the agreement and said at one point if the people supported the deal he would start looking for another place to live. Willis, however, still has his home and other interests in Hailey. Even former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, who laid the foundation for Batt when he unilaterally halted further shipments of waste from Colorado in October 1988, agrees with Maxand that Idaho citizens have to watch the federal government like a hawk to make sure they are not shortchanged.

Batt was only in office four days in 1995 when he was confronted with the issue. A month earlier Andrus had refused to let the Navy exceed a 1993 federal court limit and dump another eight loads of spent reactor fuel at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Batt was convinced to backtrack. He said he did it to bring the issue of permanent dumps outside Idaho to a head.

But the new governor quickly learned to play tough with the Clinton administration. He drew the national spotlight as he took advantage of the buildup of federally owned waste across the nation to force the government to accept the limits and deadlines in the unprecedented cleanup deal.

Batt and his allies, including Andrus, said it ensured INEEL would not become a permanent dump. Critics said it guaranteed the opposite, and they put the agreement to a voter referendum in 1996. Voters sided with Batt by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

But Beatrice Brailsford, who was in the middle of that debate as a member of the Snake River Alliance, thinks the campaign elevated the debate over waste storage at INEEL to a new level.

"No matter how you voted on the initiative, you were expressing concern about nuclear waste in Idaho and how to manage it," Brailsford says. "The public involvement demonstrated to our political leaders that nuclear waste was a source of concern."

In the years since, over 3,500 cubic meters of plutonium- contaminated waste have been shipped from INEEL to the federal dump in New Mexico.

Over 200 cubic tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel has been moved to safer dry storage from deteriorating water tanks and the rest has been put in state-of-the-art pools.

Scores of deteriorating and contaminated buildings have been dismantled. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste have been solidified and a nearly equal amount removed from the 14 in-ground tanks. At least seven tanks have been cleaned, and three emptied with only residual amounts of liquid left in the others.

And the Energy Department has intensified cleanup efforts in recent years. "More on-the-ground cleanup work was accomplished this year than any year in INEEL history," says Beth Sellers, who runs the department's Idaho office.

For all the deadlines and benchmarks the government and its contractors have met so far, the woman charged with making sure they continue to stick to the agreement says major challenges remain.

The government is currently behind in shipping plutonium-contaminated waste to New Mexico and could miss the deadline for moving 30,000 barrels between last year and the end of next year, Kathleen Trever says, and the state is still in court fighting federal attempts to leave waste at INEEL under what the state claims are twisted interpretations of the agreement.

"It will require continued diligence and political attention and technical attention and financial attention to get the job done," she says. "There is always the nameless faceless bureaucrat back in Washington, D.C., who is pushing his own interest without understanding what is going on in Idaho."

But Brailsford and Andrus agree it will take more political and legal pressure to force full federal compliance.

Federal officials, Andrus warns, "will continue to try to waffle and get out from under it, and the only way it will be totally fulfilled is if we have a citizens suit before a federal court. And I'm prepared to participate in that."


On the Net: Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory: www.inel.gov; Snake River Alliance: www.snakeriveralliance.org