DENVER -- The Energy Department said yesterday it was abandoning a plan to build the country's first nuclear-waste incinerator in southern Idaho, a decision that was hailed by environmental groups that used considerable political and financial might to fight the plan.
The decision was part of the settlement of a lawsuit the groups had filed against the department seeking to stop construction of the incinerator, or failing that, to collect $1 billion in damages if it began operating.
The plaintiffs had been largely concerned that the wind might blow radioactive and toxic dust across western Wyoming. The area includes Yellowstone National Park and the upscale resort community of Jackson, Wyo., where the main opposition group, Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, is based.
"The magnitude of this victory cannot be overstated," said Tom Patricelli, executive director of the Yellowstone group. "I know it sounds like a cliche, but the people came together and spoke. We made a lot of noise, and we were right. So we got on their radar screen."
In addition to stopping construction plans for the incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which is 90 miles west of Jackson, the settlement calls on Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to appoint a panel of experts to explore alternatives to incineration as a method of nuclear waste disposal.
In an interview, Richardson said halting the construction "eliminates a potentially festering problem in the future." But in a broader context, he added, "I also want a careful examination of new technology as an alternative to incineration. I'm not satisfied that that has been fully explored. There may not be a better way, but we need to examine all alternatives."
The lawsuit, which named Richardson among others as a defendant, was one of many tools the environmental groups used to persuade the federal government to reconsider plans for the incinerator. They mounted intensive lobbying and direct-mail efforts, paid for in part with $500,000 raised in donations, 20 percent of which came from two notable Jackson homeowners -- Harrison Ford, the actor, and James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, who each donated $50,000.
"This is a marvelous example of how people gathered together to bring Goliath to his knees," said Gerry L. Spence, a well-known trial lawyer who worked at no cost for the environmental groups. He, too, lives in the target area, just outside Jackson in the small town of Wilson, Wyo.
As part of the settlement, which was completed Sunday night, the Energy Department will proceed with plans to build a facility at the laboratory that compacts waste for shipment to the department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Now, 65,000 cubic meters of waste is awaiting treatment, although most of it is neither radioactive nor hazardous. By agreement, up to 97 percent of the toxic waste will also be compacted, with the remainder stored underground.
By law, the waste must be disposed of by 2018.
One element of the lawsuit settlement did not please the environmental groups. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., an agency of the British government that would have built the incinerator, was allowed to remain as a partner in the design and construction of the compacting operation. The agency, which has worked on other nuclear projects in the United States, has drawn criticism in recent years for questionable business practices and for dumping radioactive waste into the Irish Sea. The Yellowstone group petitioned Richardson last week to have the agency barred from contracting with the American government.
Richardson promised the groups that his department would keep a watchful eye on the British agency, and as part of the settlement, the groups retained the right to ask Richardson later to reconsider British Nuclear Fuels as a department contractor.