The future: INL hopes rest on bringing power to the people

February 2002 was a moment of truth for Idaho National Laboratory.

It had long been without a defined mission -- other than cleaning up acres of waste -- and the federal Office of Management and Budget called for the site to be cleaned up and shut down.

Desperate for a mission, Idaho's congressional delegation lobbied to have INL designated the U.S. Department of Energy's lead lab for nuclear energy.

They got their way that July, but it was seen as little more than a bone thrown to Idaho. Nuclear energy wasn't going anywhere fast in the United States.

"Oh yeah, you can have that," Sen. Larry Craig recalls being told.

Six years later, much has changed.

With skyrocketing energy prices and concerns about greenhouse gases, resistance to nuclear energy has lessened. Many -- including several noted environmentalists -- are backing it as the best cure for our energy woes.

Congress has freed some money for research, including the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative. That means INL's nuclear mission is a lot more important.

Green shift

To find proof the country's attitude toward nuclear energy is changing, look no further than the green movement.

Nuclear energy, long the scourge of environmentalists, is being embraced by many who once worked to shutter the country's nuclear plants.

Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalog graced coffee tables in the 1970s, and Patrick Moore, a founding member of Greenpeace, have both argued that nuclear power represents the only way to produce base-load energy -- energy that can meet peak demand at any time -- without spewing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power," Moore wrote in the Washington Post in April 2006. "And these days, it can do so safely."

Moore's column was seen as a turning point for many in the environmental community. Nuclear power, once the great bogeyman, suddenly became a palatable alternative to burning coal or importing oil.

Craig said he began to be approached by environmentalists wanting to talk nuclear. Rep. Mike Simpson said there's no doubt that many "greens" have done a 180 on expanding nuclear power.

"I don't sense the hostility there once was," Simpson said. "It was just like if you talked about nuclear power, you were nuts."

Photo courtesy of Gwyneth Cravens - Gwyneth Cravens is the author of "Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy."

Around the world, more than 130 new nuclear plants are under construction. In the United States, where no reactors have come online since 1996, momentum is building toward construction.

In August, at least 15 public power companies indicated to the Nuclear Energy Commission they were interested in permits to build 33 new pressurized water reactors.

10-year goal

It should come as no surprise that as talk of a nuclear renaissance grows, INL would want to be part of it. Eastern Idaho has embraced nuclear power for close to 30 years.

INL officials are positioning the lab to be a leader in the movement.

Director John Grossenbacher said Battelle Energy Alliance is well on its way toward meeting its 10-year goal of making INL a "pre-eminent, internationally recognized nuclear research laboratory."

Long active in the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, INL is one site being considered for research and development under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

At the Bonneville Technology

Center, the lab is pioneering high-temperature hydrogen production.

The Advanced Test Reactor, the largest and most flexible materials testing reactor in

the world, is ready to start hosting university-sponsored research.

The lab now has a supercomputer capable of conducting high speed analysis of reactor designs and processes.

Long-range, INL has been identified by the Department of Energy as the place where a high temperature, gas-cooled reactor will be developed as part of the Next Generation Nuclear Project.

Heat from such a reactor could one day be used in industrial processes from coal liquefaction to the production of petrochemicals.

"Dow Chemical's energy bill is $5 billion a year," Grossenbacher said. "With people talking about carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, getting heat from a reactor could make a lot of sense. They see the handwriting on the wall."

'Energy Corridor'


Craig was a key player in getting Idaho designated the site for the NGNP in the 2005 Energy Bill. He envisions an Interstate 15 "Energy Corridor" between Idaho Falls and Pocatello, a place where private/public partnerships pave the way for a nuclear power renaissance.

"I think there's phenomenal opportunity here," Craig said.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who lived for years in the Middle East and has emerged as one of the nation's leading advocates for energy independence, said the site could play a huge role in making that a reality.

Schweitzer advocates a combination of clean coal technology (Montana contains 30 percent of the nation's coal supply), wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power to wean the country off its foreign oil dependency.

"We need many legs under the table for energy security," Schweitzer said. "I think, 10 years from now, we'll have at least a dozen new nuclear plants

built around the country."

Currently, nuclear produces about 20 percent of the nation's energy. Because of a growing demand for power and the fact that old

plants wear down, Craig said new plants will need to be built to sustain that number.


Growth also will be slowed, Craig said, because the infrastructure of the nuclear industry has been eroded by the long dry spell in this country. An entire work force needs to be trained.

The biggest factor blocking the expansion of nuclear power is, of course, waste. But a new approach in which the most radioactive portion of the waste from nuclear power stations is isolated and burned in "fast" reactors could help make it palatable to those with memories of Three Mile Island and "the China Syndrome."

Competing labs

Even assuming a nuclear power renaissance is on its way doesn't mean INL's future is assured. A declaration made by a soon-to-be past administration won't deter other national labs from attempting to get a piece of the pie.

Craig said the groundwork has to be laid now, at places such as Idaho Falls' Center for Advanced Energy Studies (to be completed this year) and by helping the DOE evolve from a funding agency to one that cooperates with private enterprise.

He added that he doesn't fear competition from other nuclear labs. If nuclear energy experiences a true rebirth, there will plenty of work for everyone to do.

"This ultimately could become a very big pie," Craig said.

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Robert Bower / Post Register - The Center for Advanced Energy Studies at University Place is expected to be finished this year. Sponsored by the DOE, INL and Idaho's three universities, it is intended to be a place for educational programs, new professionals, research and policy discussions.

Environmentalist author does 180 on nuclear power


Gwyneth Cravens never envisioned herself preaching the benefits of nuclear power.

A novelist and editor for The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine when Cravens lived in New York in the early 1980s, she signed petitions and demonstrated successfully against the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. After low-level tests in the 1980s, the plant closed in 1989 and was decommissioned in 1994.

Today, the Long Island Lighting Co. gets its power from fossil fuels.

Given the widespread anti-nuclear sentiment that followed the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, Cravens wonders now whether it would have made any difference if she had believed then what she believes now.

Since 2000, Cravens has done a

Amanda Smith / Post Register - The Advanced Test Reactor is one of Idaho National Laboratory's prime resources. The largest and most flexible reactor of its kind, it has been in operation for more than 40 years. While the Navy has been its main customer, this year, INL is looking toward hosting academic research at the ATR.

U-turn on nuclear energy, and is busy today promoting a 439-page book in its defense

"Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) started as a magazine article. Since its publication in October, it has placed her in step with former anti-nuclear activists who are now pushing nukes as the ultimate green alternative for producing base-load electricity.

It's not a message everyone in the environmental movement wants to hear.

"The definition of base-load power is going to be changing over the years," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "We're going to see smaller power plants and better efficiency. Structural change we believe is inevitable."

Still, some big names have changed their tune. In September, Cravens got an invitation from Stewart Brand, former Merry Prankster and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, to do a presentation for his Long Now Foundation.

"There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective," Brand told The New York Times in 2007. "Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don't know where it is and you don't know what it's doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody's atmosphere."

Cravens says the facts can speak for themselves.

"I try not to get into shouting matches," she said. "But we're seeing some fissures in the green movement. My point is, if you really do a comparison study, you change your mind."

Cravens credits her conversion to D. Richard "Rip" Anderson, an eastern Idaho native who was working as a scientist at Sandia National Laboratory when she met him in 1993.

A native of Albuquerque, N.M., Cravens had flown one day and viewed the mountain where she'd been told as a child that nuclear warheads had been stored. That night at a party for Flamenco music enthusiasts, she met Anderson.

When she found out what he did, she asked him about the mountain.

He told her it was true, adding that the warheads were being dismantled. The plutonium would eventually be disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, for which he was doing risk assessment. The uranium pits would be turned into fuel for nuclear power plants.

"It was a funny moment," Cravens said. "I thought to myself, 'This is really swords into plowshares.'"

Her antipathy toward nukes didn't crumble right away. But she admits, "I was open to the idea that something could be proved to me."

Anderson took her on a tour of the nuclear fuel cycle, from Grants, N.M., where uranium is mined, to Yucca Mountain, Nev., where spent fuel and high-level waste may one day be stored. Along the way, they stopped at Idaho National Laboratory. The chapter of the book detailing that visit is called "Going to Extremes."

"The Idaho chapter is a very important one that nobody knows about," Cravens said. "I was debating a guy from Greenpeace, and he said containment buildings had never been designed to withstand a meltdown. I said, 'That's wrong. That's exactly the kind of work they were doing in Idaho.'"

Cravens said she isn't opposed to wind and solar energy.

But they're intermittent sources that haven't been adapted to supplying base-load demand, and they are not without environmental impact.

Some people she meets argue it will be a long time before the public embraces nuclear power, but going by the response to her book, she thinks a big shift could happen fairly fast.

"When I told people in 2000 that I was writing about nuclear power, they would say, 'Have you lost your mind?' I get e-mails from them now that say, 'Yes, nuclear is the way to go.'"

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INL's Gen IV research looks to the future

An act calls for a new reactor to be built at INL by 2021.


Perhaps the greatest opportunity for Idaho National Laboratory is its role in the Next Generation Nuclear Project.

The National Energy Policy Act of 2005 called for a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor to be built at INL by 2021. Cost estimates have been upward of $1.5 billion.

The proposed appropriation for INL in the 2009 fiscal year is $61.9 million. Congress appropriated $76 million in 2008.

High-temperature gas-cooled reactors have already been demonstrated for the production of electricity. The technology has been proven, INL Director John Grossenbacher said.

But the commercial nuclear industry in the United States is likely to stay with light-water reactors for power generation, as they are more suited to the nation's power grid.

INL's Gen IV research is focused more on high-temperature reactors for the manufacture of hydrogen (an essential ingredient in fertilizer, and currently taken from natural gas) and high heat for applications for such industrial tasks as petrochemical manufacturing, coal liquefaction and extraction of oil from tar sands.

"Any industry that requires heat is going to be interested," Grossenbacher said.

While in the past such a project would have been controlled by the government, today's model is a public/private partnership.

"You really need industry involved from the beginning to advise how it can be scaled up for industrialization and commercialization," Grossenbacher said. "You can't just say, 'Trust us, we know what we're doing,' nor can you develop something on your own and then go to industry and say, 'Here it is.' It may not be what they need."

Grossenbacher said he expects a commercial alliance to incorporate itself as a formal entity this year. At that point, they'll come to the DOE and tell them what they need.

The lab's job, as it always has been, is to provide answers to the big technical questions, Grossenbacher said.

"How do you make the fuel? How does the fuel perform? Somebody's got to build and demonstrate one. You've got to demonstrate it at industrial scale for a significant amount of time," he said.

Reactor facts

Right now, there are 104 fully licensed nuclear power reactors in the United States. All are either pressurized water or boiling water reactors. Generically, these are called light-water reactors, because they use ordinary water to cool the reactor core and moderate the neutrons.

The Very High Temperature Reactor concept -- the basis of the Next Generation Nuclear Project research -- utilizes a graphite-moderated core with an outlet temperature of up to 1,000 degrees centigrade. The reactor core can be either a prismatic-block or a pebble-bed reactor design. Researchers are favoring helium, an inert gas, as the coolant for the reactor.

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Energy Department scales back plans


Faced with a lukewarm Congress, the U.S. Department of Energy has at least temporarily scaled down its plans for participation in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

In March, more than 700 people attended a hearing in Idaho Falls to speak in favor of Idaho as the place where the DOE should recycle spent nuclear fuel.

At that time, the DOE proposed designing, building and operating three facilities:

A nuclear fuel recycling center where spent fuel would be separated into reusable and waste components, with new nuclear fuel coming from the reusable components.

An advanced recycling reactor to destroy long-lived radioactive elements in the new fuel while generating electricity.

A facility for research into recycling processes and other advanced nuclear fuel cycles.

Making its appropriation for the 2008 fiscal year, however, Congress told the DOE to drop the first two components, that it would only consider funding an R&D facility at one of its national laboratories.

The DOE followed up in December, announcing that the programmatic environmental impact statement it was putting together for GNEP would focus on only the R&D project. A decision on where it might be located is expected in June.

In the 2009 budget released earlier this month, the DOE proposed $77.8 million for the research and development on the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative. The development of advanced nuclear fuel recycling is a major element of the GNEP.

Lab Director John Grossenbacher said he is optimistic that Idaho National Laboratory will get a piece of the GNEP, that the site already has the resources with which the research and development can be done.

"We can add to and modify the buildings we already have," he said.

There is spent fuel already at INL. Although the 1995 agreement between the state of Idaho, the DOE and the U.S. Navy says it has to be gone by 2035, one of the goals of GNEP is to reduce the amount of waste that must be stored.

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A breakdown

of what happens where

Materials and Fuels

Complex (MFC)

Formerly: Argonne National Laboratory-West

Location: 38 miles west of Idaho Falls

Capabilities: Remotely handling, processing and examining spent nuclear fuel, irradiated materials and radioactive wastes; assembling power systems for space exploration vehicles; analytical laboratories.

MFC Facilities

Fuel Conditioning Facility (FCF)

Where spent fuel from the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (now decommissioned and defueled) is being treated to recover sodium in the fuel for disposal, and to recover and blend uranium into low enrichment for storage. Materials are remotely handled in a large hot cell facility (shielded rooms to contain contamination and radiation).

The Hot Fuel Examination Facility (HFEF)

Where technicians remotely examine nuclear material and fuels to determine how they perform in high-radiation environments. One research tool is a small research reactor -- the Neutron Radiography Reactor -- which generates neutrons to examine fuels and materials.

The Space and Security Power Systems Facility

Where radioisotope power systems ("batteries" for deep-space probes) are assembled and tested before delivery to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The batteries utilize heat from plutonium-238.

Transient Reactor Test (TREAT) Facility

A shut-down reactor formerly used to test the performance of reactor materials during accident simulations. Currently used for storage and training activities.

Zero Power Physics Reactor (ZPPR)

Now defueled and in standby condition, ZPPR was a low-power test reactor that tested various design features using different materials and configurations.

Reactor Technology

Complex (RTC)

Formerly: Test Reactor Area

Location: 53 miles west of Idaho Falls

Capabilities: Supporting development of new nuclear reactor designs, fuels and materials; production of valuable medical and industrial isotopes.

RTC Facilities

Advanced Test Reactor (ATR)

This is where materials and fuels are tested for national security programs and the commercial nuclear industry. ATR also produces valuable isotopes used in medical treatments (including cancer therapy) and industrial applications.

Advanced Test Reactor Critical (ATRC)

The ATRC is a small, low-power reactor used to pretest experiments that will be put into the Advanced Test Reactor.

Safety and Tritium Applications Research (STAR) Facility

Supports fusion-related research and development, focusing on how radioactive and hazardous materials behave in fusion reactors. Work is done in glove boxes and small hot cells.

Nuclear Materials Inspection and Storage Facility

Used for storing new, unirradiated fuel used to power the Advanced Test Reactor.

Hot Cells

Small, heavily shielded rooms used to contain radiation/contamination, equipped with manipulators to remotely handle irradiated materials. Currently in a shutdown/standby condition.

Critical Infrastructure

Test Range Complex (CITRC)

Location: 45 miles west of Idaho Falls

Capabilities: High-bay workshops, classrooms, and electronic substations to create a centralized location where government agencies, utility companies and equipment manufacturers can test technology. A full industrial-scale electrical power grid allows for terrorist attack simulations. A very quiet electromagnetic field allows testing of new wireless technology.

Specific Manufacturing

Capability (SMC)

Location: 52 miles northwest of Idaho Falls

Mission: The SMC project manufactures armor for the U.S. Army's M1A2 Abrams main battle tank. The facility's 223 employees handle and process more than 2 million pounds of metal materials each month during operations.

History: The project started in February 1985 with a memorandum of understanding between the Army and the U.S. Department of Energy. Material production began in November 1986, with the first unit being delivered in October 1987. During 1988, SMC achieved full production and has been working at capacity ever since. To date, about 3,900 armor packages have been produced at the SMC.