Court orders feds to turn over Idaho nuclear waste documents

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to make available to the court documents sought by former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus involving nuclear waste shipments to eastern Idaho.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Monday ordered the agency to produce the documents within a week so Winmill can determine whether to make them public.

Andrus filed a lawsuit in September after Energy Department officials responded to Andrus' Freedom of Information Act request with pages of blacked out documents.

Andrus wants information about several hundred pounds of proposed research shipments of spent commercial nuclear fuel to the Idaho National Laboratory that require a waiver to a nuclear waste agreement the Energy Department and Idaho signed in 1995.

Andrus said signing the waiver could open the door to tons more radioactive waste from the Energy Department and turn the state into a nuclear waste repository.

"We have to know what's going on," Andrus said Tuesday. "Their stonewalling and reluctance lends credence to my suspicion. That's all I have right now — a strong suspicion backed up by a history of an agency that has run roughshod over the public for way too many years."

Andrus, who has a long history of battles with the Energy Department over nuclear waste entering Idaho, contends in his lawsuit the agency failed to comply with Freedom of Information Act requirements by withholding information that should be public.

The Energy Department argues that the information can't be made public because it involves internal communications that fall under an exemption to the act. The agency also cited attorney work-product privilege, and attorney-client privilege.

Winmill in his 29-page ruling said the Energy Department's explanation for blacking out pages of documents didn't say whether the redactions "buried information relating to substantive policy about the transport and storage of large quantities of potentially dangerous nuclear waste, disclosure of which may very well be in the public's interest."

Energy Department officials didn't respond to inquiries from The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The Energy Department has said it wants to study two research shipments of spent fuel rods at the Idaho National Laboratory to better understand "high burnup" spent fuel that is accumulating at nuclear power plants in the U.S.

However, one shipment has been sent to another facility and the second shipment is on hold because Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has refused to sign a waiver to the 1995 agreement until the Energy Department proves it can turn 900,000 gallons of high-level radioactive liquid waste already stored at the 890-square-mile federal facility in eastern Idaho into a solid form.

So far, a $600 million plant built to accomplish that task has been plagued with glitches and failed to convert any of the liquid into a solid, violating the 1995 agreement and leading the Energy Department to seek the waiver.

The effort for the waiver that apparently had been going on for months became public in early 2015 when Andrus, a Democrat, and former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican, held a news conference blasting the possible waiver and current Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter for backing it.

Wasden, however, has said the 1995 agreement is the only leverage the state has in forcing the Energy Department to remove the liquid waste from the underground storage tanks and has refused to sign the waiver. Negotiations between Wasden and the Energy Department to find a solution collapsed last fall.

Andrus says that if the tanks leak they could contaminate a giant underground aquifer that supplies water for area cities and farmers who grow potatoes and other crops.

Backers of the research shipments say it will bring millions of research dollars to eastern Idaho. Nuclear scientists say the research on the "high burnup" spent fuel is needed because some 100 existing nuclear plants are producing and storing the spent fuel that comes out more radioactive and hotter.

It's not clear when Winmill will make a decision about whether to make the Energy Department documents public.

"We look forward to the judge's review and, we hope, the eventual release of information," said Laird Lucus of Advocates for the West, which is representing Andrus in the lawsuit.

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