Idaho’s big battle over a small amount of spent nuclear fuel

metal garbage canWant to know what Idaho’s dispute about two bundles of 25 spent fuel rods each is really like? Take a metal garbage can, say 39 gallon size, and put it over your head. Then have someone bang on the outside of it with a broomstick. It makes a really big racket, but aside from some residual ringing in your ears, there will be no physical harm. That’s what the sound and fury of the current dispute looks and sounds like. Put the Department of Energy inside the garbage can and put two former Idaho governors outside it with sticks, and that’s what’s going on.

What got things started is that nuclear scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) want to bring two bundles of 25 spent fuel rods to the facility to test them for research purposes. This request has run afoul of a settlement agreement for cleanup of nuclear waste at the site inked by former Idaho governor Phil Batt.  It includes a provision to remove all spent fuel from the state by 2035. Implicit in the 1995 agreement is that the Idaho site will never again be used by the Department of Energy (DOE) as an interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.

Currently, the site holds spent fuel from the failed Three Mile Island reactor, from Peach Bottom, and a large but unknown inventory of classified spent fuel from the US Navy’s nuclear powered ships and submarines. All of it must be gone by 2035, presumably to a permanent geologic repository like Yucca Mountain. Thanks to US Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), Yucca Mountain never opened stranding the spent fuel in Idaho.

At risk in Idaho is the potential for radioactive residuals to seep into the Snake River aquifer which is an enormous state-wide groundwater source of irrigation water for the state’s potato crop. Farmers have for decades feared that the Department of Energy’s use of the INL as a nuclear waste dump would french-fry their crop right on the vine.

While these fears have long since been set to rest, due to progress with the cleanup effort, dark suspicions remain about the government’s intentions. The plan to bring new spent fuel to Idaho, even for R&D purposes, has re-energized the ghosts of these old fears to once again haunt the political landscape.

The result is that former Governor Batt, a republican, and former Governor Cecil Andrus, a democrat, have teamed up to oppose DOE’s plan to bring the two shipments of civilian spent fuel to Idaho. They see it as a camel’s nose under the tent, a first step in making the remote R&D site, located 50 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID, an interim storage facility for all of the nation’s spent fuel.

Were that to happen it would likely be in operation for at least 100 years or longer taking in as much as 100 million tonnes of spent nuclear fuel. This is not an outcome either man wants having established as their respective political legacies a plan for exactly the opposite intended outcome. Both men say the plan to bring the spent fuel to the INL violates the 1995 agreement.

Todd Allen, Ph.D., the INL’s deputy director of science and technology, tells the AP that the reason the lab wants to study the spent fuel is to better understand “high burnup” fuel which is accumulating at the nation’s reactor sites. High burnup fuel is enriched to 5% U235 and stays in the reactor longer than lower enriched fuel. Nuclear utilities like the Perry Plant in Ohio like it because it means long run times and fewer fuel outages.  Allen notes that an increasing number of the nation’s utilities are using high burnup fuel.

While the INL can make the scientific case for the shipments, on the political side there is a history of deep distrust of all things DOE related by the two governors.  One reason is that DOE has repeatedly missed other deadlines for dealing with nuclear waste that was dumped on the Arco desert in the 1950s and 60s.  A facility originally estimated to cost under $200 million to turn highly radioactive liquid waste into powder form is now expected to cost three times that amount and still doesn’t work.

The State of Idaho has determined DOE is in violation of another provsion of the 1995 settlement agreement which includes a milestone for transforming the nearly 1 million gallons of liquid waste left over from spent fuel reprocessing into powder form and to ship it to WIPP.

The deadline for the plant to be operational came and went last December. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is fining DOE thousands of dollars a day for missing it. Cleanup managers at the Idaho site say they can make the plant operational and pledged to overcome the current technical difficulties.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told the AP on May 16 that the state will not accept the two bundles of spent fuel, or any other spent fuel, until DOE gets the liquid waste plant working.  He said that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who promised $20 million in R&D funding if the state accepts the spent fuel, isn’t paying attention to what the state considers to be important.

Wasden also notes that that state is not opposed to the mission of the INL.  He said the two bundles of high burnup spent fuel can be sent to the lab once DOE commits to an enforceable deadline for completing the liquid waste plant and getting it working.

Complicating the plan for removing the liquid radioactive waste is that the WIPP site had an underground fire that closed the facility stopping all shipments to it.  If the Idaho Cleanup Project can turn the liquid waste into powder, it will be sealed in steel canisters which will immobilize it and significantly reduce any threat of contamination to the aquifer. It is this expected outcome that gives AG Wasden the basis to offer a one for one deal on the spent fuel.

While neither Batt nor Andrus are in political office, they are very influential with the voters. Batt told the AP, “I vowed to the people I will not let commercial waste in without decreasing it somewhere else.”

In other words, no new nuclear waste comes into INL without something similar going out. That political formulation sells well with the public. The situation “is not satisfactory to me,” Batt said.  More trash can banging is likely in the future.

Idaho Governor Otter promotes nuclear energy for Idaho

butch-otterAmid the headaches over two bundles of spent nuclear fuel coming into Idaho, current governor C. L. “Butch” Oter (right) says Idaho could benefit from increased investment in nuclear energy in the state.  He predicted that globally nuclear energy will increase in terms of being used to generate electricity.

Otter thinks that Idaho could become a home to nuclear manufacturing and expanded nuclear R&D involving the INL and the state’s universities.

Separately, NuScale, a developer of small modular reactors (SMRs), is rumored to be strongly considering eastern Idaho as the site for its first unit to be built for a consortium of utilities in Idaho, Utah, and Washington.  The company has not confirmed that it has selected Idaho as the location for up to 12 units of 50 MW SMRs.  At a nuclear energy conference held in Charlotte, NC, last October, NuScale’s Chief Commercial Officer, Mike McGrough, told attendees the Idaho site is high on the company’s list.

NuScale has said it is more than halfway through the process of preparing for an NRC safety design review of the SMR which is expects to kick-off in 2016.  If the design passes muster, then NuScale’s customer, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) must apply for a combined construction and operating license.  Taken together, the hugely expense process could take up to six years.  That would set a date for breaking ground sometime around 2022.

INL officials hope to resolve their waste cleanup problems long before then creating a climate that welcomes new nuclear projects including R&D on spent fuel.

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