Local column: INL among National Laboratories

A recent DOE review of its national laboratories paints a good, but not great, picture of INL’s standing, writes Steve Piet.

The outgoing Department of Energy managers released a review of its national laboratories and a new order on scientific integrity. What do these mean for Idaho National Laboratory?

The review report describes each lab. The INL is described as a “multipurpose Energy Lab with primary focus on nuclear power while also advancing other clean energy technologies and critical infrastructure protection.”

The review notes that the INL has liquid waste to be disposed of. This is not as obvious as it seems. The Department of Energy has never created a unified site in eastern Idaho with one contractor. The INEEL lab, transformed to INL in 2005, included waste cleanup, but not Argonne-West people and facilities. The current INL lab includes the former Argonne-West, but not cleanup.

The current INL contractor, Battelle, has neither role nor authority over waste cleanup – but nevertheless it is held accountable by the Settlement Agreement between DOE and State of Idaho and the review describes INL as having waste challenges.

This causes the inability to bring in a small amount of used nuclear fuel for research purposes because DOE is “out of compliance.”

Yet, the INL contractor can do nothing. There must be a single contractor for all DOE work in eastern Idaho– research and cleanup. One entity to be held accountable and to have the authority to make things happen.

The review mentions numerous research “centers.” INL is a minor participant in many, but leads none.

In explaining DOE’s overall story, only two specific INL facilities are mentioned - the Biomass Feedstock National User Facility and the Critical Infrastructure Test Range Complex. Curiously, none of its nuclear facilities are mentioned in the general section of the review despite INL having the only designated Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF) in the DOE complex.

When the review turns to specific laboratories, the INL Gateway for Accelerated Innovation to Nuclear (GAIN) initiative is highlighted. Several unique facilities are listed.

The new scientific integrity policy is something that has been long overdue for DOE. It states “Covered personnel are free and encouraged to discuss their scientific work and research openly, whether in a scientific or a public forum or with the media, and to publish their findings.” Later, “Under no circumstance may anyone, including a public affairs officer, ask or direct any researcher to alter the record of scientific findings or conclusions.”

Perhaps this might have protected me when a manager tried to force me to change the conclusion of a technical report to the opposite of what my analyses showed. That report was never published. When I get my personal website operating, I’ll include it. I know others who have been similarly pressured. Of course, this isn’t limited to INL. I know a U.S. Geological Survey employee who was essentially fired for not supporting the full political climate change narrative.

In summary, the review paints a good, but not great, picture for INL. The Trump administration will propose budget and direction changes. It will take 1-2 years to know what that means. Perhaps INL will be given more nuclear leadership than appears in this review.

Piet holds the Doctor of Science degree in nuclear engineering; he retired after 31 years at INL.