Nuclear Development Booms in Idaho

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho, March 24, 2005 (ENS) - Big changes are taking place at the Idaho National Laboratory on the Snake River Plain in southeastern Idaho. A new contractor has been chosen to clean up the large amounts of highly radioactive nuclear waste at the U.S. Energy Department facility. Advanced nuclear energy systems are planned for development there, and the lab may become the production site for plutonium-238 power systems.

The plutonium-238 fueled radioisotope power systems are used to provide power for classified national security missions. The Department of Energy (DOE) is preparing an environmental impact statement for producing plutonium-238 in Idaho that is due out in late April.

Meanwhile, the DOE is changing contractors at the Idaho National Laboratory. Under a contract announced Wednesday, CH2M-WGI will take over management of the cleanup work on May 1 from Bechtel BWXT Idaho.

CH2M-WG Idaho will be responsible for treatment and disposal of radioactive waste; retrieval, disposal and other remediation related to buried waste; safe management of spent nuclear fuel; disposition of nuclear materials; disposition of reactor and non-reactor nuclear facilities; and other environmental remediation activities through the year 2012.

spent fuel

Spent nuclear fuel consists of nuclear fuel rods that no longer have enough of the fissionable material needed to power a reactor. (Photo courtesy INL Oversight)
“We are pleased to announce this selection to ensure a seamless transition and continued excellence in our cleanup effort,” Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Wednesday.

“The Idaho Cleanup Project is a very complex and technically challenging project requiring significant skill and expertise," Bodman said. "By awarding this contract, we are one step closer to achieving the vision laid out by Idaho’s 2012 plan.”

The contract, which runs through September 20, 2012, is valued at about $2.9 billion and was selected as a result of competition to determine the best value for the taxpayer, said Bodman. It requires that over 2,600 employees now employed in the cleanup effort be offered employment by CH2M-WGI.

About the size of the state of Rhode Island, the Idaho National Laboratory is located on 890 square miles in southeastern Idaho, west of the Snake River and 32 miles west of the city of Idaho Falls. The laboratory lies within the original aboriginal territories of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall reservation.

Known until February as the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), the site then was expanded to include the Argonne National Laboratory West and is now known as the Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

The laboratory is situated above the upstream end of the Snake River Aquifer. It was established in 1949 for nuclear reactor research, nuclear navy research, training, nuclear waste storage, reprocessing irradiated fuel, and for the storage and disposal of radioactive and hazardous waste from nuclear weapons production.

Fifty-two test reactors, most of them first-of-a-kind, were built and operated at the site, including the Navy's first prototype nuclear propulsion plant and the first reactor to utilize nuclear fission to produce a usable quantity of electricity. Of these, three reactors are still operating.


An INL technician tests for radiation near a road crossing the site. (Photo courtesy DOE)
"Most had meltdowns, either intentionally or unintentionally. This legacy of nuclear waste either has, or is today, contaminating the Snake River Aquifer," warns the Snake River Alliance, a citizen watchdog group.

The Snake River Aquifer is North America's second largest unified aquifer, containing about the same amount of water as Lake Erie. The aquifer has been designated a "sole-source" aquifer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as it is the only source of drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing water for more than 270,000 people in southern Idaho.

"Twenty-five percent of the nation's potatoes and 75 percent of the nation's trout are produced with Snake River Aquifer water," says the Snake River Alliance.

The legacy of radioactive waste at INL is expected to take at least 11 more years to clean up, even on the accelerated schedule announced by the DOE in 2002.

From the 1950s through the 70s, waste containing plutonium from the production of nuclear weapons was buried in shallow unlined pits and trenches at the facility.

In addition, "millions of gallons of high-level liquid waste from reprocessing the Navy's spent nuclear fuel to recover weapons grade uranium was stored in underground tanks, often with leaking pipes contaminating the soil and groundwater," the Snake River Alliance says.

Today, the Idaho National Laboratory houses naval spent fuel as well as spent fuel and debris from the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania, where the nation's worst nuclear accident occurred in 1979.


The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project was constructed by British Nuclear Fuel Limited. The facility will prepare transuranic waste now buried or stored at the INL for shipment. 1: Waste Storage Facilities; 2: Treatment Facility; and 3: Characterization Facility. (Photo courtesy INL Oversight)
In addition, INL houses some 65,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste, at least half of the U.S. burden of this type of waste. It is being trucked to the WIPP isolation facility in New Mexico at the rate of about 2,000 cubic meters per month. All transuranic waste must be out of the state by December 31, 2018.

The INL site now contains at least one million gallons of liquid sodiumbearing waste, as well as newly generated waste, at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC), which occupies about 200 acres of the laboratory site.

In addition, 4,400 cubic meters of solid high-level nuclear waste is stored at INL.

INL is still accumulating spent nuclear fuel from naval vessels. Under a 1995 court ordered settlement agreement with the state of Idaho and the EPA, the laboratory can receive only those shipments of naval spent fuel that are necessary to meet national security requirements to fuel or refuel nuclear powered submarines, surface warships, or naval prototype or training reactors.

In any case, shipments of naval spent fuel to INL from 1995 through 2035 may not exceed 55 metric tons of spent fuel, equivalent to about 500 truck shipments.

INTEC is a focal point for implementing the 1995 settlement agreement. Key objectives of this agreement are to remove all spent fuel from Idaho by the end of 2034, and to treat all high-level waste currently stored at INEEL so that it is ready to be moved out of Idaho by 2035. This highly radioactive waste is supposed to be headed for the Yucca Mountain geologic repository in Nevada, now undergoing a contentious licensing process before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

INTEC is responsible for INL's High-Level Waste Tank Farm - 11 underground stainless steel tanks used to store the radioactive liquid waste generated during the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and plant decontamination work. Most of the tank farm liquid has been calcined, reducing the volume and converting it to a more stable solid form. About one million gallons of liquid waste remains stored in underground tanks.


The Advanced Test Reactor at INL produces many of the nation's medical and industrial isotopes. This photo looks down into the reactor core from above. (Photo courtesy INL)
The corrosion-resistant tanks are encased in concrete vaults which have sumps and leak detection. One tank is always kept empty for use as a transfer backup should a problem develop with one of the other 10 tanks, says INTEC.

While no leakage has been detected from the tanks, "Some leaks from transfer lines outside the tanks have occurred, and this drives the current cleanup program," INTEC says.

Under an agreement with the state of Idaho, all waste must be removed from the tanks by 2012. DOE is currently evaluating technologies to accomplish that.

Waste that has been buried for decades is being retrieved from a half-acre portion of the INL’s Subsurface Disposal Area at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex.

In January, workers began removing selected waste containing uranium, plutonium and americium from a portion of an area known as Pit 4. The project will also remove volatile organic compounds, which are the most mobile constituents in the waste. Pit 4 was chosen for this retrieval action because it is known to contain some of the highest levels of transuranic contamination in the Subsurface Disposal Area.

Under a 1991 federal-state agreement, all INL environmental cleanup activities were to be completed by the year 2070.

Then, in 2002, DOE, the EPA and the state agreed to accelerate cleanup at INL. Under the accelerated timeline, all cleanup work is to be completed by 2020 or even as early as 2016.

By accelerating the remediation activities, not only will the risks to human health and the environment be reduced faster, the DOE and citizens' groups say, but cleanup costs can be reduced by billions of dollars.

The cleanup status of all major areas across the laboratory site is detailed here.

New Nuclear Missions for the Idaho National Lab

While cleanup of legacy waste is taking place, the Energy Department is planning new nuclear activities at INL.

In February, the Battelle Energy Alliance, LLC (BEA) assumed the management and operational responsibility for the Idaho National Laboratory under a $4.8 billion, 10 year contract to transform the Idaho facility into the what the DOE calls the nation's “preeminent” nuclear energy laboratory.

BEA is owned by the Battelle Memorial Institute. Team members include BWXT Services Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia; Washington Group International of Boise, Idaho; the Electric Power Research Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Idaho National Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher is a former vice admiral in the U.S. Navy, assigned as Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet and Commander, Submarine Allied Command Atlantic, Norfolk, Virgina. (Photo courtesy INL)
Leading the Battelle team is Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher. “We have been given a unique opportunity to lead a national renaissance in nuclear energy and build a world class national laboratory,” he said.

One of the laboratory's major tasks is to develop a system that uses nuclear energy to produce hydrogen as a transportation fuel, to reduce the nation’s dependence on imported fossil fuel.

"This work supports the President’s National Hydrogen Fuel Initiative and is an important element in the development of a clean and efficient hydrogen economy in the United States," the DOE said in a February statement.

The new plan for the laboratory includes programs in areas such as materials science, chemistry, environmental science, computation and simulation. The lab will help protect the country’s critical infrastructure and prevent the proliferation of nuclear material, the DOE said.

One of the laboratory’s major tasks will be to lead an international research and development effort to create advanced nuclear energy technology to provide for U.S. electrical demand.

INL and Argonne National Lab are organizing and coordinating the Generation IV Initiative to develop nuclear technologies that achieve safety performance, waste reduction, and proliferation resistance. The DOE says Generation IV should provide a nuclear energy option that is economically competitive and ready for deployment before 2030.

Internationally, the two labs have organized meetings of the Generation IV International Forum. Ten countries have so far joined the United States: the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Canada, Argentina, South Korea, Republic of South Africa, Switzerland, and Brazil.

Six advanced nuclear technologies have been chosen for exploration. They are described here.

Production of Plutonium-238 Power Systems at INL

The INL is being considered as the site for locating all of the nuclear activities associated with production of plutonium-238 fueled radioisotope power systems. Currently this work is done in New Mexico and Tennessee, as well as Idaho.

Brad Bugger, spokesman for the DOE's Idaho Operations Office, says the DOE is currently looking at two alternatives for producing plutonium-238 power systems from radioactive neptunium-237. The process involves placing neptunium-237 targets into the Advanced Test Reactor at the INL, and irradiating it, thereby converting some of the neptunium into plutonium-238.


INL's Advanced Test Reactor Critical Facility is used to verify reactivity of experiments placed in the reactor and core. (Photo courtesy DOE Idaho Operations office)
"The first would involve shipping neptunium-237 from Idaho, where it will be stored, to Oak Ridge in Tennessee, where it would be fabricated into targets. Then it would be shipped back to Idaho for irradiation, then down to Los Alamos in New Mexico for processing, then finally back to Idaho for construction of the radioisotope power systems. The second alternative would be to consolidate all of that work in Idaho," Bugger said.

DOE officials maintain they intend to begin construction of the INL plutonium facility in October of this year.

The Snake River Alliance is organizing public meetings across Idaho to inform people of the potential risks involved with such a proposal.

The DOE is in the scoping phase of developing the environmental impact statement. The agency has held meetings in Wyoming, New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington, DC, asking the public for other alternatives that the department should consider.

Bugger acknowledges that "some citizens are concerned that plutonium or other potentially hazardous materials might escape from the production facilities. In particular, they questioned the reliability of the high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that are used to protect the air from hazardous particles, especially under accident scenarios."

While he could not answer this concern, Bugger said, "The Department has heard the public, loud and clear, about how important it is to look at this concern."

At the scoping meetings some citizens have questioned why the DOE cannot discuss the classified national security uses of the radioisotope power systems. "Some have inferred from this that the systems will be used in nuclear weapons. Others have noted that Pu-238 has been used in nuclear weapons systems in the past," said Bugger.

"I understand that some citizens may never accept the fact that we can’t tell them what those uses are, but we can’t change the rules of the game," said Bugger. "I can tell you that the systems produced for national security are not intended for use in nuclear weapons or to support nuclear weapons, and will not be used in space. The systems will be used to produce power for the national security mission."


The Integrated Waste Tracking System tracks solid, hazardous, radioacitve, and mixed waste from generation through final disposition. The system does not track spent nuclear fuel or high level waste. (Photo courtesy INL)
There has been a good deal of concern raised about nuclear waste, how much would be generated by this project and what would happen to it. In reply, Bugger said, " DOE will do everything it can to minimize the amount of waste generated by this project, and to reuse as much neptunium and plutonium as possible, because they are both very valuable materials. We also will comply with all existing laws and regulations governing this waste, and we intend to ship whatever waste is finally generated off-site to regulated disposal facilities."

There has been concern raised about the transportation of the nuclear materials that will be used in the production of the plutonium-238, and of the finished radioisotope power systems, especially by the Shoshone-Bannock tribes whose lands would be crossed by trucks bearing the radioactive materials.

Some at scoping hearings asked if the consolidation of the plutonium-238 in Idaho might make the INL a bigger terrorist target. To this concern, Bugger would only say, "Terrorism is always a concern we take very seriously at the INL, no matter what the potential target – a reactor, waste storage, special nuclear materials, etc. – might be. We have a well trained, well-armed security force, a sophisticated information network and the full resources of the United States government to rely upon."

The laboratory will also lead the establishment of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, a collaborative effort between the state of Idaho, the laboratory and universities in Idaho and across the country. This center will bring academia into the life of the laboratory and provide students and professors access to the laboratory’s unique capabilities.

The DOE intends that through this center, the INL will become a nationally and internationally recognized focal point in the advancement of education in energy science and technology.