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Sustainable Idaho: Nuclear Risks

Dan Meyers

In our last two episodes, we introduced the topic of nuclear energy and discussed its potential to help in a transition away from fossil fuels. We discovered that nuclear power could serve as an essential base load source of power because of its dependability. Nuclear energy can also make the jump from coal with relative ease because of the re-utilization of various resources like labor and energy infrastructure.

While there are a number of benefits to using nuclear energy, there are also a great many drawbacks. We spoke with Hannah Smay and Leigh Ford from the Snake River Alliance, an organization that advocates for a clean energy transition without nuclear. We also spoke with Lisa Hecht, an organizer who works with The Union of Concerned Scientists. First, we talked with Smay about what many see as the biggest concern surrounding nuclear energy: the dangers of high level waste.

Smay explained that unmanaged high level waste can deliver far beyond the fatal level dose of radiation. But as stated in our last episode, the industry takes measures to shield the public and workers from this radiation. Still, certain waste can remain highly radioactive for thousands of years and one of Smay’s main concerns is about the health of future generations. Ford adds to this notion by stating that we are colonizing our future. Ford states that many aspects of nuclear energy are unjust and that plants take a long time to start producing power, which means that they won’t be able to help transition away from fossil fuels as fast as people think. Lisa Hecht, Idaho’s state organizer for the USC or Union of Concerned Scientists, added onto the issue of time.

Hecht brings up another concern by summarizing a report from USC called “Advanced” Isn’t Always Better by Dr. Edwin Lyman. This report brings to attention the fact that while a lot of new reactor designs try to fix past concerns and issues, none of them meet all the USC’s safety, sustainability and security standards.

Another big concern has to do with water so we asked Smay how exactly nuclear energy may pose a threat to this vital resource. Water is invaluable in the American West, which we are continually reminded of as we endure earlier heatwaves and longer droughts. A 2020 report by the US Geological Society says yes, INL disposed of radioactive and chemical waste directly into the aquifer from 1960, before there were regulations, until 1984. This example of groundwater contamination has raised concerns about the industry and our water quality.

Ford also brought up the 1995 Settlement Agreement, which has set the parameters for nuclear production and waste storage in the state. The Settlement Agreement blocks the importation of commercial waste so as to prevent Idaho from becoming a nuclear waste dumping ground. However, these safeguards do not apply if the waste is made in-state so that waste created in state can be stored in state.

Coming back to specific nuclear detriments, we asked Ford to provide an overview for how nuclear fits into the transition away from fossil fuels and she replied saying that nuclear power cannot be a part of our energy future because there are too many risks.

In this episode, Lisa Hecht highlighted the main issues with plants surrounding construction time, meeting operating standards, and nuclear waste management. Many in the conservation community, like Ford, take a stronger stance and do not see nuclear as an investment in our energy future. While it will serve to reduce carbon emissions, they see the side effects as too dangerous and dirty. Instead, they propose increased investment in renewables and grid level battery storage to meet base-load power needs. In the end, both proponents and opponents of nuclear energy just want what is best for our state’s future.

Tune in for our last nuclear episode, which will be focused on nuclear energy economics. Join us for Sustainable Idaho, every Tuesday morning at 7:35 a.m.

In full disclosure to our listeners, Idaho National Laboratory is a financial supporter of KISU.

Link to article that references the 2020 Geological Survey Report:

Ailie Maclean was born and raised in Alaska but moved to Kimberly, Idaho right before high school. Ailie is an undergraduate Political Science and Global Studies major at ISU. She is going into her last year at ISU as Vice President of Idaho State’s student government, ASISU, and has served as an Honors Program Mentor, Communications Envoy, and ASISU Supreme Court Justice in past years. In her free time she enjoys reading, longboarding, hiking, watching anime, and swimming in unique places (Silfra in Iceland for example). Ailie plans on studying environmental, or some variation of international law, after taking a gap year to travel and work abroad.
Eizaak Jordan was born and raised in McCall, Idaho. He spent summers in Yellowpine, Idaho, near the Frank Church Wilderness Area. Eizaak's days were characterized by interacting with the natural world in both locations, curating his passion for Idaho’s ecosystems. He is currently an ISU Political Science student and President of ISU’s Sustainability Club. After graduation, he will be applying for a graduate program in environmental politics, which will hopefully open opportunities to gain full employment doing environmental advocacy. Eizaak spends his free time reading, cooking, and fly fishing.