Idaho lab loses spent fuel R&D project

The State of Idaho dug in its heels over a request for a waiver of the current Federal consent decree on cleanup as a result of a noisy campaign against it by former Idaho Governors Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has taken off the table a proposal for the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to receive two shipments of spent nuclear fuel to support an R&D program. Two former Idaho governors said the reason they opposed the project is that they saw it as a camel’s nose under the tent to turn the remote Idaho site into an interim storage facility holding spend fuel for the nation’s commercial nuclear utilities.

A long period of negotiations between the DOE and state official hinged on whether the state would agree to a waiver of the 1995 Settlement Agreement to allow the 25 spent fuel rods, weighing about 100 pounds, to be shipped to the INL’s Arco Desert facilities. Former Governor Andrus disputed the government’s numbers saying the volume of fuel bundles and their weight was very much larger and added that in his view the government could not trusted to keep its promises to limit the shipments to support R&D projects .

The state’s reluctance to issue the waiver was also prompted by the failure of the Department of Energy to process 900,000 gallons of highly radioactive waste through the Integrated Waste Treatment Plant (IWTU).  The original cost of the plant was set at less than $200 million, but it has spiked to several times that amount ($571M) and is still not fully operational years after its scheduled start-up. DOE has indicated it may start looking at alternative methods for dealing with the waste if the plant cannot be made to work.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden agreed with Andrus that there are trust issues involving relations with the federal government. He told the news media that DOE “failed to participate in direct and meaningful negotiations that could have led to a resolution that served the interests of all parties.”

The scope of the R&D program was to evaluate “high burn up” spent nuclear fuel that came from enrichment to 5% U235. High burn-up fuel remains in reactor cores for longer than fuel with lower enrichment levels saving utilities money with fewer fuel outages. However, it comes out of the reactor with more radioactivity and a high initial temperature.

The first shipment of 25 spent fuel rods was scheduled to come from the Byron plant in Illinois. The second shipment, also for 25 rods and weighing about 100 pounds, was scheduled to come from the North Anna plant in Virginia.

For his part Andrus said that he was pleased that the project had been cancelled. He continued to claim that the two small shipments would be the first of many bringing tons of spent fuel to Idaho for interim storage lasting perhaps 50-100 years. He filed a lawsuit against DOE after being denied copies of documents related to the federal agency’s negotiations with the State of Idaho. Andrus appears to have ignored information in the media that two commercial firms are racing to develop interim storage sites for spent fuel in Texas and New Mexico.

For its part DOE re-assigned the R&D work for the high burn-up spent fuel from North Anna to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The announcement produced a flurry of comments from anti-nuclear groups seeking more information on the project.

Despite the setback in Idaho with the spent fuel project, in a separate action President Obama designated the INL a center for R&D for nuclear reactors technologies as one of the outcomes of his recent nuclear summit held just ahead of the climate change conference starting in Paris, France, December 1st.

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3 Responses to Idaho lab loses spent fuel R&D project

  1. Martin Burkle says:

    NuScale often mentions Idaho as a likely first site of their small modular reactor. Of course, it will make uses nuclear fuel. Do you think it is OK to make used nuclear fuel in Idaho but not OK to ship it into Idaho?


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