Idaho National Laboratory might be starting to show attributes of a “world-class” research institution. But fundamental changes in how the lab operates and engages with the public must be made over the next decade to maintain its elite status.
That’s the conclusion of a 36-page report by members of the Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, an independent group of experts who give advice to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. John Sackett, a retired INL manager, led the 12-member subcommittee that compiled the report and presented the findings last month to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission.
“Both the lab and the department have been tasked with responding specifically to the recommendations,” Sackett said. “We’re looking forward to seeing how those responses will be.”
“I appreciate the report. It’s very timely, it’s helping us a lot,” INL Director Mark Peters, a LINE Commission member, said at last month’s meeting. He said the lab was working to develop “action plans” associated with each recommendation.
The report’s recommendations include:
• Increasing international engagement. The committee talked to 20 foreign nuclear industry experts who generally said the lab needed “more effective engagement with the global nuclear community.” INL has in place an international outreach program, but the report indicated the international community is “largely unaware” of it.
• Boosting cooperation with other national labs. Cooperation between INL and other nuclear research labs such as Oak Ridge and Argonne “is improving,” the report states. But the labs still sometimes compete for work, and there isn’t a “formal framework for collaboration that establishes a reasonably stable, accepted role for each lab,” the report said. More teamwork between nuclear institutions is needed, it said.
• Better explaining to nuclear companies what INL does. INL might be on the radar of international research institutions, but “there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of INL capabilities in industry,” which thwarts potential research and development partnerships, the report said.
INL’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear initiative — founded in 2015 to team nuclear companies with lab experts and resources — is an “excellent start” to fix the problem, and the initiative should be “continued and expanded,” the report said.
• Renegotiating the 1995 Settlement Agreement. INL is “growing in prominence” around Idaho, attracting top talent and partnering more with state universities. But, according to the report, the lab still gets a lot of “negative publicity,” which it blames on “problems associated with another entity at the site, namely the clean-up activity.”
Under the 1995 Settlement Agreement with the state regulating cleanup of nuclear waste, INL has been unable to bring in spent nuclear fuel for research for two years due to missed cleanup milestones. The report says the cleanup issues should be handled separately from INL’s research mission, but the agreement was not written that way. According to the report’s authors, “the settlement agreement needs to be renegotiated for the benefit of all parties,” and DOE’s nuclear energy and cleanup arms should begin discussions with state officials on the possibility of updating the document now.
Also, in order to increase understanding of the lab’s research work outside eastern Idaho, the report recommended INL “establish a scientific and engineering presence” in Boise.
• Improving communication with outside groups, including watchdogs. There remains a “limited understanding by many communities in the state of Idaho of the research role of the laboratory,” the report says. Nuclear watchdog groups such as Snake River Alliance say they know more about cleanup efforts than the lab’s research capabilities, according to the report. Lab officials should better keep these groups informed, and “seek where appropriate their input regarding lab objectives and operations.”
• Creating a less “transactional” relationship between DOE and Battelle Energy Alliance. Previous reports examining the laboratory system have outlined “transactional oversight” by DOE of the labs and their contractors. This sort of “prescriptive” federal management, with little flexibility for contractors with how they carry out their work, has been visible in DOE’s relationship with Battelle, the report said, and initiatives have been taken to improve the relationship.
But more steps need to be taken to improve trust between the entities, the report said. They include allowing local DOE officials, not headquarters, to manage the Battelle contract and correct problems when they occur, and allowing INL to propose alternatives to “burdensome” DOE contract requirements.
Read the full report at tinyurl.com/INLReport.
Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth