Determining the fate of E. Idaho’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant

March 9, 2018 GMT

On Dec. 31, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Plant is scheduled to complete its mission.

The 400 employees who work at this multi-billion-dollar facility in the Eastern Idaho desert have done a remarkable job treating transuranic radioactive (TRU) waste brought to the state in the 1970s and ’80s, a result of the Cold War race to accumulate atomic weapons.

Since its creation following Idaho’s 1995 Settlement Agreement with the federal government, AMWTP has grown into the nation’s premier TRU waste treatment facility. It is the only site that has accepted and treated waste from other DOE facilities, eliminating the need to build expensive, new processing plants around the country.

The Department of Energy’s lone “supercompactor” is at AMWTP and is capable of reducing a 55-gallon drum to one-fifth its size. This cuts down on the number of truck shipments leaving the facility and saves valuable space at the permanent disposal site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico.

With that end-of-the-year deadline approaching, an important decision looms.

Do we mothball this remarkable facility and condemn its experienced and accomplished workforce to finding new work?

Or do we extend AMWTP’s mission by continuing to treat waste accumulating at other DOE sites across the nation?

The problem is that those tasked with recommending and, ultimately, determining AMWTP’s fate, appear to have come down with a serious case of indecision paralysis.

The Idaho Cleanup Project Citizens Advisory Board is tasked with providing independent advice and recommendations to DOE’s environmental management program, with the goal of protecting Idaho’s people and resources.

The issue before this board Wednesday was AMWTP.

Shuttering AMWTP would force the federal government to spend billions of taxpayer dollars replicating a one-of-its-kind technology that has proven to treat waste more safely and efficiently than any other method.

Allowing AMWTP to continue its work would save taxpayer dollars and local jobs, while maximizing safety and continuing to treat and dispose of the nation’s Cold War waste.

Do we or don’t we? DOE hasn’t said and at Wednesday’s meeting the citizens advisory board failed to pick a side.

There was a lot of talk about concerns: the board’s collective qualification to be offering advice on this issue; the nuances of language; unintended consequences; even, ironically, DOE’s inability to make a decision about AMWTP’s fate. Four years ago this same body wrote a letter to DOE supporting a future mission for AMWTP. Four years later things are worse than stalled; they are moving backward.

At one point, citizen’s advisory board member Brad Christensen summed up his frustration with DOE’s stalled process and the CAB’s inability to agree on a recommendation, saying “My dad taught me when I was young — indecision is a decision,” in an effort to urge the board to support the future mission immediately, given the narrow timeline.

None of this is meant to imply that deciding AMWTP’s fate is easy or uncomplicated. If DOE wants to extend the facility’s mission, many issues will need to be worked out. Those include transportation of waste, intake at WIPP and Idaho’s 1995 Settlement Agreement.

That’s why we need to get moving. The clock is ticking and it will take time to work through each of these issues.

I would like to see AMWTP’s mission continue. The jobs are important to Eastern Idaho’s economy and the families they support.

Also, as American citizens, we should embrace an opportunity to utilize a highly trained and experienced workforce, as well as existing resources that do not exist anywhere else, to serve our nation’s best interest.

Some will argue that AMWTP should be shut down when its mission concludes. I completely disagree, given the possibilities it still holds, but that would be a decision. What is totally unacceptable is DOE’s continued vacillation and an outcome in which our indecision ends up making this important decision for us.

Former Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham is the science and technology director at REDI, Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho.