Historic nuclear reactor dome won’t be demolished just yet

Retired employees of Experimental Breeder Reactor-II took a tour inside the dome of the old research reactor facility in April. A below-ground portion of the reactor facility was filled in with concrete. Post Register file

The Experimental Breeder Reactor-II is seen in 1986, the same year a famous test demonstrating the reactor’s inherent safety was conducted. Courtesy INL

Seventy former Argonne National Laboratory-West employees took a tour of the EBR-II facilities in April, posing for a group picture in front of the old reactor’s silver dome, which will survive a few more years. Post Register file

The silver dome lives on.

Originally scheduled to be torn down last fall, the iconic Experimental Breeder Reactor-II building west of Idaho Falls will survive at least a few more years.

It is the last artifact of the pioneering test reactor, where scientists made big strides in nuclear fuel recycling and safety.

Everything inside the dome was gutted in recent years. The reactor vessel was entombed in concrete. Support buildings were demolished to clear space for new facilities at Idaho National Laboratory’s Materials and Fuels Complex.

But the U.S. Department of Energy and cleanup contractor Fluor Idaho have decided to postpone the last step of demolishing the dome itself. The delay is welcome news for a number of current and retired lab workers who hoped to save the 1960s-era structure for its historical value and offbeat charm.

“It’s a very recognizable symbol,” said Van Sandifer, 61, a retired reactor operator and manager at EBR-II. “A lot of us who were involved in the history, the testing and research that was done out there, see there is value in retaining that dome.”

Cleanup officials planned to finish tearing down EBR-II by last September, slicing the thick cement and metal into pieces using a high-powered “hydro jet” tool. A slanted 8-foot concrete cap was to be built over the remaining structure.

But DOE and Fluor officials said they wanted to take the money they would spend on demolition and use it on more pressing areas of waste cleanup, such as meeting a 2018 state deadline to remove hundreds of shipments of transuranic waste from Idaho (a deadline DOE is unlikely to make).

“We had limited funding,” said Jack Zimmerman, DOE’s deputy manager of the Idaho Cleanup Project. “And (Fluor) proposed to actually take down the dome in the (later) years of the contract, so we can focus our resources on making the 2018 milestone.”

Demolition is now scheduled to begin in 2019, with completion expected in 2020. The remaining work is expected to cost $5.8 million, said Fluor spokesman Erik Simpson.

Previous cleanup contractor CH2m-WG Idaho began decommissioning the old reactor and related facilities in 2009, an effort that included treating the reactor’s sodium coolant. So far $113 million has been spent on the project.

EBR-II began operating in 1964 at what was then called Argonne National Laboratory-West. It produced 20 megawatts of electricity, enough to satisfy about half the desert site’s energy demands.

Over the years scientists demonstrated they could recycle spent fuel that came out of EBR-II. They tested new fuel types and safety protocols. In 1986, they showed awed onlookers who came from around the world how EBR-II’s unique design could safely cool itself down in a blackout.

Funding was withdrawn from the EBR-II program in 1994. But the reactor has garnered renewed attention in recent years, because many of its features are expected to lay the groundwork for a future generation of sodium-cooled fast reactors currently in the design phase.

Last spring, 70 former EBR-II employees including Sandifer gathered to remember the 1986 safety test and say goodbye to the dome and nearby control room.

But now they might have enough time for at least one more visit.

Sandifer said a group of Argonne-West retirees meet every couple weeks for breakfast. A common topic of conversation in recent months: saving the dome. They hope it can be repurposed, perhaps as an auditorium.

Zimmerman admits EBR-II is “pretty easy to pick out, as far as the skyline at MFC.” But he said DOE officials haven’t yet found a way it could be reused. “Right now our plan is to take it down, unless someone comes up with a purpose that we could transition it to,” he said.

Sandifer argues it’s worth saving. Nuclear experts from around the world know the story of EBR-II, he said. It was featured prominently in a recent PBS documentary about the future of nuclear power.

“It’s been the visual symbol for nuclear research out on that desert,” Sandifer said.

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