“Study history, study history,” Winston Churchill said long ago . “In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”
I was reminded of those wise words from the great man recently during the latest dust up concerning the state of Idaho, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and two former Idaho governors.
I’ll leave it to the former governors, Phil Batt and Cecil D. Andrus, to press their case as to why top Idaho officials are mistaken in granting DOE a second “waiver” permitting shipments of commercial spent nuclear fuel (SNF) to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). My perspective, as Churchill would suggest, is to remind us of the “history” behind the current and historical controversies. The two former governors share a lot of history with the Department of Energy.
Full disclosure requires that I mention for anyone who doesn’t know that I worked for Cece Andrus years ago, covered both men as a reporter, admire them greatly and consider both among the very best public officials Idaho has ever produced. Rather than a defense of their recent objections I offer some history that helps explain, I think, why Batt and Andrus feel as they do.
Begin at the beginning…
Truman’s initial effort to find out what was going on in great secrecy at Hanford was politely rebuffed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Truman persisted, going so far as to send a committee investigator to the Hanford site. His investigator was turned away. As Truman biographer David McCullough has written in his extraordinary book Truman, the feisty Missourian grew annoyed at the stonewalling and became determined to press hard for answers about what his government was doing. Stimson, now annoyed himself, refused to tell the senator anything while writing in his diary, “Truman is a nuisance and a petty and untrustworthy man. He talks smoothly but acts meanly.” Truman would not learn about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb until he had been President of the United States for twenty days.
As McCullough writes regarding the development of an atomic weapon, “In less than three years the United States has spent $2 billion, which was not the least of the hidden truths, and, one way or the other, 200,000 people had been involved, only a few having more than a vague idea of what it was about. That the diligent chairman of the Truman Committee had known so little was a clear measure of how extremely effective security had been.” McCullough notes that neither General Douglas MacArthur or Admiral Chester A. Nimitz “or a host of others in high command” knew what was going on.
As I said, the nuclear age was born in secrecy without even the most basic degree of oversight. War time security certainly demanded a high degree of secrecy around the Manhattan Project, but in hindsight it seems impossible to justify that such a massive undertaking with such world-changing consequences should have been conducted completely in the dark. A bomb was born along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia in the 1940’s, but so too was a culture. Remnants of that old culture of secrecy, fueled by a belief that only a handful of highly trained people can know what’s best for the country and that pesky oversight is a “nuisance,” survived long into the Cold War.
For decades as the U.S. nuclear weapons program developed, the arid high desert in eastern Idaho became the home for much of the detritus of the nuclear age. Much of the weapons production was done at the Rocky Flats DOE site just north of Denver, Colorado. Tools, protective clothing and other materials contaminated during the weapons production process was routinely sent to Idaho for “disposal.” In the early days, the
disposal was something less than “state of the art” with flimsy boxes dumped in ditches scratched out of the desert soil and covered over. Later the material was packed in 55 gallon drums and stacked more safely on pads. The nuclear junk, often referred to as transuranic or TRU waste, piled up in Idaho for years.
When then-Governor Andrus started asking questions in the 1970’s about why any waste was being “stored” in Idaho above the vast Snake River Aquifer he was told that the “storage” was “interim” pending the development of a suitable permanent repository. Andrus exchanged correspondence with the director of what was then called the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a forerunner of the current Department of Energy. The AEC was run at the time by a pugnacious, opinionated woman named Dixie Lee Ray, a marine biologist by training and an unabashed champion of nuclear energy. Ms. Ray, whose personality and to be truthful physical appearance, resembled a bulldog, later served one contentious term as governor of Washington. Her toxic spats with the Olympia press corps were legendary in those days. She named the pigs she kept at her Fox Island farm after individual Statehouse reporters. You get the idea. Dixie Lee Ray was one of those smart people who knew what was best for the country.
Shortly before Andrus went off to Washington to serve as Secretary of the Interior in Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet, Dixie Lee Ray wrote the governor that the AEC had a plan to dispose of the waste material stored in Idaho and it would be “removed by the end of the decade.” Usually public officials don’t make such certain claims unless they are sure they can follow through, or they are merely dissembling. Andrus assumed the best regarding the assurances from the head of the AEC even though he had crossed swords with federal officials in the early 1970’s when Idaho turned up on a short list of states being considered as national waste disposal sites. Andrus convened a “blue ribbon commission” at the time, which not surprisingly made the case that eastern Idaho – in large part because of the aquifer and active seismic activity – was a horrible place to dispose of waste. Seeds of distrust were deeply planted.
It’s worth a short digression here to note that the historical lack of oversight of DOE and its predecessor agencies has been a completely bi-partisan failing. Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in Idaho, as well as presidents of both parties, largely let the nation’s nuclear policy, including what to do with all the waste material, basically become an issue that was out of sight and therefore out of mind. It has long been an article of faith in Idaho politics that any statewide candidate had to embrace the state’s DOE site and welcome virtually any decision DOE made regarding the facility. Idaho is far from unique in this regard. The same dynamic exists in other states like Washington or South Carolina were a big DOE influence is felt in the economy. To use Tip O’Neill’s famous phrase, the DOE jobs and budgets make all politics local. That is both understandable as politics and regrettable as public policy. It’s far easier, of course, to praise the economics and avoid the oversight. As an historical matter this really only started to change in the 1980’s.
Creating a New Agency…
One of Jimmy Carter’s lasting legacies was to propose and sign into law the legislation creating of the U.S. Department of Energy which took place in August 1977 early in Carter’s administration. As DOE notes on its website, “The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977 created one the most interesting and diverse agencies in the Federal government.” The scope of the DOE mission from weapons to waste, from research to reactor safety is about as “diverse” as any in the federal government. Carter made the new expansive agency even more interesting by putting the arrogant, pugnacious empire builder James Schlesinger in charge as the first secretary. It wasn’t one of Carter’s better personnel decisions.
Schlesinger, an economist by training, cut his political teeth in the Nixon Administration as a budget official and for a brief time as director of the Central Intelligence Agency before Nixon moved him to the Department of Defense. When Gerald Ford became president Schlesinger stayed on, but Ford – a better judge of character than Nixon – quickly came to dislike him.
As the Washington Post noted in Schlesinger’s obituary last year: “His aloof, arrogant manner,” as Ford described it, was off putting to the president. “I never could be sure he was leveling with me,” Ford told historian Walter Isaacson, and soon he was gone.
Schlesinger, a Republican, then supported Ronald Reagan against Ford in 1976 and when Reagan lost the nomination Schlesinger switched sides to support Carter and become his energy adviser. On such turns of history are historically bad appointments made. The pipe smoking Schlesinger, a man steeped in the petty intrigues of Washington and the culture of secrecy at the CIA and the Pentagon, was just the man not to take a fledging Department of Energy into a new era of transparency and public accountability.
Andrus, I should note, observed a good deal of the creation of the new agency from a front row seat in the Carter Cabinet. The Interior Department had to assist with the birthing of DOE by transferring personnel and programs, including the northwest’s great legacy of the New Deal the Bonneville Power Administration, to the new Department of Energy.
Fast forward to 1987 and Andrus’ return to the Idaho Statehouse. During his first visit after returning to the governorship to what was then called the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Andrus began asking questions, the same kind of questions he had asked in the 1970’s about that old Rocky Flats waste. Recall that he had been promised by Dixie Lee Ray that the TRU waste would be leaving Idaho “by the end of the decade” – the decade of the 1970’s – and now it was a good ten years later. In fact, the waste wasn’t leaving, but was continuing to accumulate due primarily to DOE’s inability to jump the regulatory hurdles required to open a permanent disposal site in New Mexico. The delays in opening the so called WIPP site in New Mexico involved both mismanagement and a lack of national will. DOE couldn’t get on the same page with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the project faltered for years and years.
Andrus went to New Mexico to see for himself and understand the delays. It’s fair to say he came away frustrated and feeling deceived by old promises not kept. Upon returning to Idaho he wrote a famous letter to then Energy Secretary James Watkins, a imperious four-star Navy Admiral accustomed to giving orders but out of his depth when it came to pulling and hauling the vast DOE bureaucracy into action. Andrus informed the admiral’s DOE that he was stopping shipments of Rocky Flats waste pending progress on the New Mexico site and later took similar action to halt shipment to Idaho of spent reactor fuel from the U.S Navy’s nuclear fleet. DOE had the responsibility of permanently disposing of that material, as well. Spent commercial waste from a nuclear power plant in Colorado was next and eventually action in federal court in Idaho.
The Andrus actions were both unprecedented and politically controversial. When Navy spent fuel started piling up at the Bremerton Navy Yard, Democratic Congressman Norm Dicks, a burly former football player who represented the area in Congress, howled and threatened. Virginia Senator John Warner said the governor a tiny western state was impacted national security by causing the undesirable spent fuel to sit in a port in Warner’s home state. Idaho Senator Larry Craig blasted the actions as damaging to INEL and some predicted the demise of the facility.
The national failures of nuclear waste policy rather suddenly became a issue no longer out of sight, but on the pages of the New York Times. The politicians, like Dicks and Warner, who wanted waste out of their states and in remote Idaho had to confront troubling and thorny issues. Those who blasted Andrus for threatening the Idaho facility soon found that sensible approaches to waste management trumped political bombast.
And apparently Idahoans understood what Andrus was doing, as well as what was at stake for Idaho and the nation. He was overwhelming re-elected in 1990. Shortly thereafter he was appointed to head, along with Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey, a joint effort of the nation’s governors and attorneys generals to create a better regulatory scheme for federal facilities, including those operated by DOE and the Defense Department. Congress passed the Federal Facilities Compliance Act in 1992 as a direct result of the Andrus-Humphrey work and thanks to the personal interest of then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
As the Environmental Protection Agency notes on its website the federal facilities law required federal agencies to do something they had not been compelled to do before – observe federal, state and local laws related to hazardous materials. The law also waived federal “sovereign immunity” allowing the government to be taken to court over compliance issues.
Andrus continued to shadow box DOE throughout his final term as governor, all the while maintaining that the agency born in secrecy and charged with such an expansive mandate could only be compelled to keep commitments through legally binding agreements. He persisted in making the case that Idaho was not a suitable place to store, even temporarily, nuclear materials. Promises, he had learned, were not enough.
Governor Batt, who succeeded Andrus in the Governor’s Office in 1995, took up the cause where his predecessor left off. Through hard work that featured several showdowns with DOE and the brass hats who ran the nuclear navy, Batt fashioned a legally binding settlement agreement with DOE. The agreement specified deadlines for waste disposal and treatment and detailed fines that might be levied on DOE. Like Andrus’ earlier actions the Batt Agreement was controversial and eventually became a ballot issue in 1996. Some thought Batt had given way too much, others thought his demands on DOE would harm the Idaho lab. But the governor had skillfully negotiated a unique deal for Idaho – deadlines and penalties – and once the issues were debated Idaho voters backed their governor and his agreement, which has now been in effect for nearly 20 years.
As the state Department of Environmental Quality notes on its website, when the Batt Agreement was signed: “there were 261 metric tons of heavy metal from spent fuel, 65,000 cubic meters of stored transuranic wastes, another 62,000 cubic meters of buried transuranic waste, approximately 2 million gallons of high-level liquid waste and 3,700 cubic meters of calcined (dried liquid) waste already stored at the INL when Governor Batt took office. Until the Settlement Agreement there was no legally binding commitment to remove any of this waste from Idaho until Governor Batt reached his agreement with federal officials.”
The current Idaho controversy has been sparked by a second “waiver” to this agreement. The waiver allows commercial spent nuclear fuel to come to Idaho for research purposes and, one assumes, storage for some period. The state says the “waiver” will only go into effect when DOE comes up with a new plan to meet milestones spelled out in the Batt Agreement, but, of course, those are milestones the agency has already missed.
It is only right and fair to acknowledge that the Department of Energy has made great progress over the last decade or so on many waste issues in Idaho and elsewhere in the DOE complex. Thousands of dedicated people are working diligently to deal with environmental problems that literally date back to Harry Truman. Not surprisingly the massive effort is far from completed and remains both complex and extraordinarily expensive. The New Mexico site that had accepted significant amounts of the old Rocky Flats waste, for example, has been forced to indefinitely suspended shipments following an accident involving a breech of a waste drum. The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper reported last week that the re-opening of the facility is “months behind schedule.” Obviously this impacts some of the material still in Idaho.
Additionally, the national plan to dispose of commercial reactor spent fuel, some of which will likely come again to Idaho under the agreed to waiver, has been stuck in neutral since the Obama Administration stopped work on the proposed Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada. Republicans in Congress are hoping to put the site back on the table, but for political reasons alone this seems unlikely any time soon.
The current Idaho controversy over waiving provisions of an agreement mandated by a federal court has been easily dismissed by some as simply not a big deal. Considered in isolation it might not be a big deal. But when you study the history and understand that the terms of Phil Batt’s agreement with DOE extend for 20 more years, and that Idaho meanwhile remains host to very significant amounts of material that should be disposed of some place else, the current controversy is more easily seen as part of a storyline that goes back a long, long way. This story will also continue long after many of us are gone.
The nation’s nuclear history is riddled with controversy and certainly a historic lack of planning for waste disposal. The history is also unfortunately wrapped in the legacy of an entire industry born in secrecy, which until relatively recently was unburdened by anything resembling vigorous oversight. It is a simple fact that Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington have been confounded by nuclear waste problems for generations and policy makers remain confounded today.
Churchill was right – in the study of history are all the secrets of statecraft. In the current case, one secret might be to clutch a hard fought and legally binding agreement close to the vest against all efforts to modify it, even a little. Given the long history and the timelines that extend far into the future the integrity of Idaho’s agreement with the Department of Energy will prove to be mighty important over the next 20 years. The state’s decades of experience with the DOE and the waste that hardly anyone believes should be in Idaho also helps explain why the two former governors – a Republican and a Democrat – so adamantly oppose modifications to the 1995 agreement.
DOE Secretaries come and go. Governors do, too. Legal agreements, as long as they are enforced, don’t.