INL spent fuel shipment remains in limbo

Deputy Laboratory Director Todd Allen gives a tour of the Hot Fuel Examination Facility Thursday. Photographer Pat Sutphin /, Date 3/12/2015, Lens 17, ISO 2500, FStop {fstop}, Shutter 1/250, Aperature {aperature},


Idaho National Laboratory officials still hope to receive a small shipment of spent nuclear fuel for a research project with South Korea this spring.

But it appears unlikely the shipment will be allowed by then, considering the U.S. Department of Energy’s continued challenges starting up its Integrated Waste Treatment Unit.

Under the terms of the state’s 1995 Settlement Agreement with the DOE, which regulates radioactive waste cleanup, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has barred spent fuel shipments from entering Idaho until the treatment unit is operating. Under the agreement the facility was supposed to treat 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing radioactive waste by 2012, but it remains in the testing phase.

“We still have the need to bring in small quantities,” INL Director Mark Peters said in an interview last week. “And the official position of the attorney general is, until IWTU is running hot, he will not allow that to happen. So this is problematic. Very problematic.”

INL wants the spent fuel to conduct a project with South Korea researching recycling techniques and improved safeguards for the fuel cycle. The shipment, from the Byron Nuclear Generating Station in Illinois, was originally scheduled for last June.

Peters in July said the lab renegotiated the research agreement to allow the shipment to be received this spring. In the meantime, he said, the lab began portions of the research using existing spent fuel stored at the lab. But the commercial shipment is still necessary because the fuel has different characteristics, he said.

“If IWTU goes beyond (spring), then we need to continue to rethink,” Peters said. The facility’s delays caused a spent fuel shipment for a different INL research project in 2015 to instead be sent to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Peters said further delays “potentially” mean the lab will lose this shipment as well.

Research funding associated with the pair of shipments is worth $10 to 20 million per year, officials say. But Peters has said he is most concerned about the lab’s ability to obtain future spent fuel shipments, beyond this spring, if the waste treatment woes continue.

After missing several state-mandated deadlines on the project, DOE officials have stopped promising a start-up date for the facility. Jack Zimmerman, DOE’s deputy manager of the Idaho Cleanup Project, outlined at a Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission meeting this week a number of fixes and tests still to be completed for the facility — a process that will last at least several months.

Wasden and DOE officials say they continue to talk about the treatment facility and spent fuel ban. But Wasden has not backed off the requirement.

“The attorney general’s position on IWTU is problematic, it continues to be very problematic. But I don’t see a lot of evidence of him changing his position,” Peters said.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth