Navy breaks ground on fuel handling facility

Admiral James Caldwell, Jr. Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Programs, greets speakers during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Naval Spent Fuel Handling Facility at the Naval Reactors Facility on Thursday. The facility will handle waste from the U.S. Navy’s fleet of submarines and ships. Construction at the new facility is expected to start in 2019 and be completed in 2024 with an estimated cost of $1.65 billion. The U.S. currently lacks a central repository for nuclear waste and the facility is prepared to store the spent fuel indefinitely. John Roark / JRoark@PostRegister.com

Department of Energy Chief of Staff Brian McCormack, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson and Admiral James Caldwell break ground on the Naval Spent Fuel Handling Facility at the Naval Reactors Facility on Thursday. John Roark / JRoark@PostRegister.com

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, speaks to audience members during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Naval Spent Fuel Handling Facility at the Naval Reactors Facility on Thursday. The facility will handle waste from the U.S. Navy’s fleet of submarines and ships. Construction at the new facility is expected to start in 2019 and be completed in 2024 with an estimated cost of $1.65 billion. The U.S. currently lacks a central repository for nuclear waste and the facility is prepared to store the spent fuel it receives indefinitely. “We’ll be working on that,” Simpson said. “That’s been a failure of congress and the administration and past administrations to come to some resolution to this but I think we’re well on our way to getting it done.” John Roark / JRoark@PostRegister.com

Admiral James Caldwell, Jr. Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion Programs, is seen through a shovel handle during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Naval Spent Fuel Handling Facility at the Naval Reactors Facility on Thursday. John Roark / JRoark@PostRegister.com

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is seen through a shovel handle during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Naval Spent Fuel Handling Facility at the Naval Reactors Facility on Thursday. John Roark / JRoark@PostRegister.com

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper fields a question from a reporter as (left to right) Lt. Gov. Brad Little, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson and Admiral James Caldwell look on during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Naval Spent Fuel Handling Facility at the Naval Reactors Facility on Thursday. John Roark / JRoark@PostRegister.com

Several hundred people gathered Thursday at the Naval Reactors Facility to watch the ceremonial groundbreaking for a new spent nuclear fuel handling facility.

All spent fuel from the U.S. Navy’s nuclear fleet is brought to the U.S. Department of Energy’s desert site west of Idaho Falls for testing, packaging, temporary storage and eventual disposal.

The new handling facility, slated to open in 2024, will better equip workers to handle spent aircraft carrier fuel. The facility is expected to serve storage needs until 2060.

A handful of dignitaries spoke at the ceremony, which was attended by Naval Reactors Facility workers and local, state and federal figures.

Adm. James Caldwell, who directs the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, stressed the importance of the new facility within the Navy’s mission.

“Nuclear power enables our carriers and submarines to have virtually unlimited endurance at a wide range of speeds, and allows us to operate confidently thousands of miles from the continental United States,” Caldwell said. “As we break ground today on this new facility, we begin to recapitalize the facility that has served the Navy well for 60 years.”

Total cost for the project is estimated to be $1.65 billion. Site preparation will begin this year.

The building will measure 714 feet by 394 feet, and will contain a 3.9 million gallon pool to contain spent fuel.

The Naval Reactors Facility’s current decades-old fuel handling site, the Expended Core Facility, can’t support the unloading of spent aircraft carrier fuel without prior disassembly of the carrier fuel canisters that house it.

The new facility will be able to accommodate long carrier fuel canisters that are transported to eastern Idaho by rail. Stainless steel canisters are at least 10 inches thick and weigh 520,000 pounds.

The new handling center is sorely needed, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson said during the ceremony.

“This facility is long overdue,” he said. “From the time I’ve spent with Adm. Caldwell and the discussions I’ve had with him in Washington, I’ve come to see firsthand the challenges associated with operating and maintaining aging defense facilities.”

Construction of the facility is expected to create about 350 on-site jobs. Afterward, the number of employees at the Naval Reactors Facility will stay relatively consistent at about 1,200 people. Employees will transition to the new facility after it’s built, and the Expended Core Facility eventually will be decommissioned.

The desert site’s history has been intertwined with the Navy since the first USS Nautilus nuclear submarine prototype was built there in the early 1950s. Thanks in part to testing at Idaho National Laboratory’s Advanced Test Reactor, nuclear submarine fuel that once lasted two months can power a ship for more than 30 years before it’s decommissioned and sent to Idaho.

Though there’s currently spent fuel at the Naval Reactors Facility packaged and “rail-ready” for permanent storage, there’s nowhere to send it. Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles across the desert from Las Vegas, originally was chosen in 1987 to become a repository for spent fuel and other high-level nuclear waste. After billions of dollars and various delays the facility was put on hold by Nevada leadership and President Barack Obama, who cut Yucca funding in 2010.

The U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee reserved $150 million to restart Yucca efforts, though it was left out of the Senate’s version of the bill. There’s been bipartisan rejection of the repository from Nevada’s elected officials.

“Hopefully we’ll resolve it this year during conference between the House and the Senate, because we need to get Yucca Mountain open again,” Simpson said after the groundbreaking. “That’s been a failure of Congress and the administration and past administrations to come to some resolution to this, but I think we’re well on our way to getting it done.”

Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.


Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.


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