Reports of the demise of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) have been greatly exaggerated.
When the Bush Administration’s 2003 budget recommended closing the controversial government laboratory, even the facility’s critics were concerned. While Idaho politicians seized on the economic boon INEEL provides the state, environmentalists wondered what would become of all the nuclear waste that still needs to be cleaned up.
As it turns out, the lab will not close. The Bush Administration retracted the language that made it sound like the lab should close, and is now calling the whole thing a misunderstanding.
“What we were told was that the implication was not to close the entire lab,” says Idaho-based Department of Energy (DOE) spokesman Brad Bugger. Rather, he says, the administration wants the lab to speed up its waste cleanup and then move over to a different manager within the DOE. Nonetheless, it took the intervention of Idaho’s governor and congressional delegation to get the language changed.
Located near Idaho Falls, INEEL began in the 1950s and at one time housed the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. The laboratory began branching out in the 1970s into other areas of research like conservation, renewable energy, and biotechnology.
Today those environmental and research functions co-exist alongside a massive waste cleanup effort. A controversial aspect of the new budget is a plan that cuts cleanup funds at INEEL and several other sites, directing the money into a new program that holds out funds for sites that significantly speed up their efforts.
According to Brad Bugger, that’s consistent with INEEL’s own goals.
“It’s always been our goal to finish the environmental work and then devote our time and energy to national security, energy security, these sorts of things,” he says. Transferring control of INEEL to a different DOE official will have a negligible effect on workings at the lab, he says. As for the cleanup, he says the original target date for finishing the work was 2050, but officials at the lab are setting a new goal of 2012.
“What’s really our biggest concern is how the major cuts in funding are going to affect what cleanup gets done at INEEL,” says Chuck Broscious, director of the Troy, Idaho-based Environmental Defense Institute (EDI). Last fall EDI joined with other environmental groups calling on the U.S. environmental Protection Agency to take over regulation of INEEL from Idaho’s state Department of Environmental Quality. The issue is still under review.
“They’re trying to sound like they’re really moving forward on a fast track,” Broscious says. “But if you look at the fine print all they want to do is get out from under all these financial obligations to deal with the waste they’ve left behind.”