For decades, Idaho National Laboratory was a place where nuclear materials were tested and pushed to extremes to make reactors run longer and more efficiently. Its contributions to the U.S. Navy's submarine and surface fleets were invaluable, as was the work it did for the commercial nuclear industry.
Today, with the Cold War over and the nuclear industry in the U.S. fully matured, the lab is undergoing two critical tests of its own.
No. 1: Can it clean up the remnants of the past safely and on schedule?
No. 2: Can it define a future for itself that helps the United States meet its energy and security needs?
For almost 25 years, many in eastern Idaho have wondered what the future holds.
From the '50s to '70s, the mission was straightforward -- build reactors, test nuclear materials and process nuclear fuel.
Today, many of the site's old missions are memories.
Places like the "Hot Shop" -- originally built for the purpose of developing an atomic aircraft engine -- have been torn down. People who worked for decades at the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant or Argonne National Laboratory-West -- some of the best engineering expertise this nation has produced -- are retired or near the end of their careers.
A sign of the times: The "Hot Shop" at Test Area North is imploded in 2007. Today, many of the site's old missions are memories, and many in eastern Idaho are wondering what the future holds.
Many would like to see a new day dawn at the site. With peak oil and global warming coming to the fore of the nation's concerns, there is hope that INL could play a leading role in the United States' energy future.
But it's going to be a long road, say the people in charge.
Unlike the past, when the money was guaranteed, competition for federal dollars is going to be intense, said Beth Sellers, head of the DOE's Idaho Operations Office since 2003.
Even if there is a nuclear renaissance, it will probably be 2050 before the nation gets 30 percent to 35 percent of its energy from nuclear power, said John Grossenbacher, president of Battelle Energy Alliance, Idaho National Laboratory's prime contractor.
So while it waits and hopes on the nuclear front, INL picks up the slack in dozens of other ways that go toward making a $1.9 billion budget.
What guarantees INL's continued future could be the things that have made it unique all along.
It has space and isolation, important for projects such as the development of heavy armor for the Army's M1A1 Abrams tank fleet.
Most importantly, in Grossenbacher's view, it has an institutional hands-on philosophy. DOE labs like Lawrence Livermore and Brookhaven might be hotbeds of theoretical genius. But at INL, the main question is, "How does this scale up?"
INL has always been a place where materials and systems have been subjected to extreme conditions and stress. While computer modeling can provide sophisticated insights into nuclear engineering questions, sooner or later engineers have to do tests on real materials.
"The science of what happens when you stick things in a reactor is still imprecise," Grossenbacher said. This makes INL's Advanced Test Reactor enormously important.
For the Department of Homeland Security, a growing participant in site projects, there's an independent industrial scale power grid that can be pushed to the limit. There's virtual radio silence on the desert, where wireless communication systems can be developed without interference.
"In today's world, people want proof of concept," Sellers said. "We have a work force that is really dedicated toward getting the mission done and getting it done safely."
Since taking over in 2005, Battelle has been involved in a fusion project of its own -- creating the INL out of two different labs, Argonne National Laboratory-West and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. That didn't come without pain, but Sellers said she hears less about it now than a year or two ago.
On the cleanup side of things, there's the Idaho Cleanup Project and the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, both of which are involved in dealing with the waste products of decades worth of applied nuclear science and engineering. It stands to reason that they are going to wind down as the tasks are finished up, but it is going to be years.
Apart from the site, yet still part of it, there's the Naval Reactors Facility, established in the early 1950s, secure in its mission and shrouded in national security concerns.
While sailors used to train on prototype reactors in Idaho, those projects are now gone. But NRF remains involved in the storage and reprocessing of fuel from the Navy's submarines and surface vessels, and in the development of more efficient, long-lasting materials.
Sellers said that while she doesn't see the site's future to be in peril, funding is going to be a continual challenge.
Idaho was identified in the Energy Bill of 2005 as the place where a Next Generation Nuclear Plant will be built. The community has expressed eagerness unseen anywhere else to be the place where research and reprocessing would be done through the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. At the end of the day, the work that goes on at the lab is about scale, Grossenbacher said.
With regard to NGNP, the questions surrounding it will be ones that have been traditionally asked at INL.
"Does this make sense? Is there commercial interest?" Grossenbacher said. "The only way you're going to know is to build one and run it."
Idaho National Laboratory trivia
Prior to becoming the National Reactor Testing Station, about 271 square miles of desert area became the Naval Proving Grounds. During World War II, large guns from U.S. war ships were brought to Pocatello for relining and were test fired in the Idaho desert before being remounted on ships.
The site -- all of its contractors and the DOE -- is the third largest employer in Idaho.
Wide open spaces
The INL desert site covers 890 square miles, or 570,000 acres, and is roughly 2/3 the size of Rhode Island. Facilities on the desert site cover less than 5 percent of the 890 square miles.
The INL desert site is a National Environmental Research Park, where universities and other research organizations study plants and animals in an undisturbed natural setting.
INL has been the site of 52 nuclear reactors -- mostly first-of-their-kind. Most have now been decommissioned and dismantled following the end of their missions.
The Materials Test Reactor was the first test reactor built at the INL site, and the second to become operational, in 1952. It operated until 1970. It performed some of the first food irradiation experiments in the 1950s. The reactor has been decommissioned and is no longer operating. It is scheduled for demolition by 2012.
The Engineering Test Reactor, which started operation in 1957 and operated through 1981, was a predecessor to today's Advanced Test Reactor. The ETR was built to test the effects of radiation on materials, fuels and equipment in order to improve the safety and efficiency of future reactor design. Demolition of the ETR, including removal of the reactor vessel, is nearly complete.
1951: Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 produces the first useable electric power from nuclear energy, lighting four light bulbs.
1952: Generating 30 megawatts, the Materials Test Reactor revolutionizes how materials are
developed for nuclear applications.
1954: First shipments of transuranic waste from Rocky Flats, Colo., begin arriving at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex.
1955: The BORAX experiments open the door for commercialization of boiling water reactors. For demonstration purposes, power from BORAX goes to Arco.
1959: A 234-by-320-foot aircraft hangar is completed at Test Area North to support the short-lived Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program.
1961: Three workers are killed in an explosion at the Stationary Low-Power Reactor-1. President Kennedy cancels the nuclear airplane program.
1963: The Waste Calcining Facility begins to convert radioactive liquid waste to a stable, dry solid.
1964: Experimental Breeder Reactor-II goes online and produces most of the electricity needed for the site until 1994.
1967: The Advanced Test Reactor is brought online.
1970 Operations at the Materials Test Reactor are curtailed, as work goes to the ATR next door.
1972: The Power Burst Facility, designed to test reactor fuel under extreme conditions, goes online.
1974: The National Reactor Testing Station is renamed the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
1978: The first test is conducted at the Loss of Fluid Test Facility, providing the first large-scale benchmark data for reactor accident analysis.
1984: The INEL Research Center in Idaho Falls is dedicated.
1986: A test at EBR-II demonstrates that reactors can be designed to be inherently safe from severe accidents.
1987: The first armor package for Army's M1A1 Abrams Tank program is completed at the Specific Manufacturing Capability project.
1995: The DOE, U.S. Navy and state of Idaho make an agreement that for spent fuel shipments to continue, all waste will be shipped out of Idaho by 2035.
1997: The name changes to Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.
2002: Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announces that INEEL will be the nation's leading center for nuclear energy research and development.
2003: The Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project, part of a 1995 agreement, opens at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex.
2004: Lab scientists and peers in the private sector announce collaborative breakthrough in the production of hydrogen from water through high-temperature electrolysis.
2005: INEEL and Argonne National Laboratory-West merge to form Idaho National Laboratory. The Idaho Cleanup Project contract is awarded separately. The first shipments of transuranic waste head to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M.
2007: Buildings are removed at Test Area North. Construction of the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit begins at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center.
Idaho Cleanup Project's mission
Contractor: CH2M-WG Idaho
Employment: (Sept. 30, 2007): 1,823
Funding: (Fiscal 2007): $404.7 million
Location: In the desert west of Idaho Falls
WHAT GOES ON THERE: The Idaho Cleanup Project's mission is to clean up much of what was once the National Reactor Testing Station, later the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. Funded through the Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management, the seven-year, $2.9 billion job began in 2005.
CH2M-WG Idaho has said it will treat a million gallons of sodium-bearing waste, remove targeted transuranic waste from the Subsurface Disposal Area and demolish more than 200 structures, including reactors, spent nuclear fuel storage basins and labs once used for radioactive experiments.
At the heart of it is the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, first established in 1950 as the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant.
The Chem Plant's purpose was to recover usable uranium in spent nuclear fuel from government, naval and commercial reactors. While two old calcining plants reduced much of the liquid waste to a stable solid form, there is still fuel in wet storage at INTEC.
CWI's cleanup mission includes moving DOE-owned fuel from wet to dry storage.
By Dec. 31, 2006, it had moved 1,186 units, more than a third of the 3,278 units it plans to transfer. Once in dry storage, they will be prepared for final disposal at a repository.
INTEC is also the location of the Tank Farm, 15 steel tanks that stored liquid radioactive waste generated during the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and decontamination.
The plan is for 11 of the cleaned tanks to be grouted by October 2008. The deadline for the 15 tanks is 2012. The project will require removing 900,000 gallons of liquid waste.
DOE selected a steam-reforming technology to treat and stabilize that waste for disposal at New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The Integrated Waste Treatment Unit should be operational by December 2009.
CWI also is the contractor on the Subsurface Disposal Area at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex, an EPA Superfund site where 35 acres of buried waste from the '50s and '60s remains to be stabilized. Working with the DOE, the EPA and the state, a draft for the project has been presented to the public.
INL as a work in progress
Contractor: Battelle Energy Alliance
Employment: (Sept. 30, 2007): 3,790
Funding: (Fiscal 2007): $965.1 million
Location: Various locations, in Idaho Falls and on the desert
WHAT GOES ON THERE: Of all the work done in Idaho for the Department of Energy, Battelle Energy Alliance's is the most far-ranging.
Battelle's job is to grow what's already at Idaho National Laboratory -- everything from space batteries to hybrid cars to cyber-security -- and develop new missions. It's probably best described as the lab and research side of "the site."
INL carries out research and science missions not only for the U.S. Department of Energy, but also for the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
When the nonprofit BEA became prime contractor in 2005 -- winning a contract estimated to be worth as much as $4.8 billion -- it planned an operation similar to what Battelle had at the DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.
The focus would be science, research and development.
In addition to Battelle, the energy alliance includes BWXT Services, Washington Group International, EPRI (formerly the Electric Power Research Institute) and a group of universities led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
From everything left of the site's past nuclear work, INL would get two pieces: the Reactor Technology Complex, the center of which is the Advanced Test Reactor; and the Materials and Fuels Complex, which was Argonne National Laboratory-West until 2005.
Incorporating Argonne, whose people had an institutional pride dating back more than 50 years, was one of the challenges facing Battelle, but it wasn't the only one.
The Idaho Cleanup Project, the Advance Mixed Waste Treatment Plant and the Naval Reactors Facility all have well-defined missions. INL is faced with developing new nuclear missions. (INL is designated as the DOE's lead nuclear research laboratory.)
One step it has taken has been to invite colleges and universities to conduct irradiation experiments in the ATR and post-irradiation examinations in INL hot cells and analytical laboratories.
The work that doesn't happen on the desert goes on in Idaho Falls, mainly at the Idaho Research Center on North Boulevard.
Although many people are under the impression that Battelle has a 10-year contract with DOE, there is an "off-ramp." This is standard in all DOE contracts now. If DOE decides it's dissatisfied with Battelle's performance, it can open recompete the contract. If that's the case, a decision has to be made by September, when the fiscal year ends.
The Navy's work in the desert
Contractor: Bechtel-Bettis Inc.
Employment: (Sept. 30, 2007): 1,322
Funding: (Fiscal 2007): $192.1 million
Location: 52 miles northwest of Idaho Falls.
WHAT GOES ON THERE: It's an unlikely comparison, but like Las Vegas, "What happens at NRF, stays at NRF."
Since the early 1950s, the Naval Reactors Facility has had a steady mission on the Idaho desert. Due to the military nature of what goes on there, the information that comes out of it is tightly controlled (to the point where children of NRF workers were known to joke that their dads were in "the transportation industry").
Much of what became Idaho National Laboratory -- the Chemical Processing Plant, the Advanced Test Reactor -- had missions closely linked to the Navy's work in Idaho.
NRF was born out of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover's belief that simulation programs were no substitute for real experience with nuclear reactors. As a result, NRF was home to three nuclear propulsion prototypes: A1W, S1W and S5G.
From the early 1950s to the mid-1990s, NRF was where the U.S. Navy sent sailors for training while it tested and refined nuclear fuels and reactor designs. Nearly 40,000 Navy personnel learned to operate surface and submarine nuclear power plants.
Even though training has stopped, the Expended Core Facility is where the Navy continues to ship spent nuclear fuel for processing and storage. In fact, one of the driving factors behind the state's 1995 spent fuel settlements was the Navy's need to send its spent fuel to Idaho. Today, ECF remains the only active facility at NRF.
Under the 1995 agreement, the Navy must move spent fuel to safer water basins, place it into dry storage by 2023 and ship all of it out of Idaho by 2035. If the DOE or the Navy does not meet its respective obligations, the state can close its borders to further shipments.
NRF has already constructed a Dry Fuel Storage Facility, which is intended to safely store naval spent fuel in a dry condition until it can be moved to either a permanent disposal location, such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada or some other storage location outside of Idaho.
NRF's employment has shown robust growth since the mid-90s. In June 2003, NRF reported a work force of 776. As of September 2007, it nearly doubled to 1,322.
Commitment to remove waste
Contractor: Bechtel BWXT Idaho Inc.
Employment: (Sept. 30, 2007): 960
Location: 60 miles west of Idaho Falls
WHAT GOES ON THERE: Located at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex, the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project opened in 2002, the result of a commitment the U.S. Department of Energy made in 1995 to remove 65,000 cubic meters of plutonium-contaminated waste.
Most of the waste being treated came from the DOE's Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado in the '70s and '80s. It was sent in barrels and boxes, deposited on concrete pads and covered with dirt (an older complex of pits and trenches at RWMC holds the waste from the '50s and '60s). The barrels and boxes contain low-level radioactive waste and transuranic waste -- rags, coveralls, machine parts and tools, all contaminated with radioactive elements, mainly plutonium. Also, most of it is "mixed waste," which means it is contaminated with oils and solvents, both radioactive and nonradioactive.
Waste is retrieved, characterized and put in casks that are crushed into "pucks," which are then loaded into containers and shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
As of mid-November, nearly 20,000 cubic meters of waste had been processed and shipped. By spring, Bechtel BWXT hopes to be a third of the way toward its goal.
The final deadline for cleanup is 2018.
Bechtel BWXT took over the plant in 2005. The contract it had through April 30, 2008 is estimated to be worth $250 million, but the DOE recently extended it another year.
The AMWTP was built by BNFL, a subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., a company owned by the British government.
Although BNFL built the plant on time, it decided in 2005 it wanted out. DOE acquired the Idaho plant for $450 million in a deal struck with the British government.