Guest column: A remarkable year for the INL

I’m proud to tell you that 2017 was an incredible year for INL. Here is a rundown of our more notable accomplishments, writes Mark Peters.

People frequently ask about the work we do at Idaho National Laboratory. When they do, I tell them about our nuclear energy and national security missions. And, if they are still with me, I get into the Laboratory’s work with NASA, electric vehicle battery research and how we help power the U.S. Nuclear Navy and develop tank armor that protects U.S. soldiers.

It’s interesting, though, that few people ask why we do this work. This has been a year of historic achievement at INL, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first I want to make sure Idahoans understand what drives our more than 4,200 staff members – with a little help from a man who wrote histories before he made history.

“What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?” – Winston Churchill.

INL’s mission is to advance nuclear energy, protect the nation’s critical infrastructure (dams, bridges, power grids, etc.) from man-made and natural threats, and help develop the clean energy needed not only to power our future, but also bring light, warmth and clean water to more than a billion people currently without.

Because of that, I’m proud to tell you that 2017 was an incredible year for INL. Some of our more notable accomplishments included:

• New Energy Secretary Rick Perry selected INL as the first national laboratory he visited.

Secretary Perry spent two days in May examining capabilities on our 890-square-mile desert Site, and at our in-town facilities, and left with an appreciation for our work and better understanding of its importance to the nation.

• INL’s desert Site was selected to host NuScale Power’s small modular reactor.

Nuclear energy produces nearly 20 percent of this nation’s electricity and 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity. This first-of-its-kind technology could invigorate an industry that produces, by far, the largest share of carbon-free electricity in the U.S. and which proved resilient and reliable during hurricanes in Florida and Texas.

• On June 29, INL honored 50 years of valuable and impactful work and safe operation at the Advanced Test Reactor.

Americans can expect ATR to continue serving the U.S. Nuclear Navy, commercial nuclear power industry, and our colleges and universities for decades to come.

• During the 2017 Idaho legislative session, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Senate Concurrent Resolution 105.

This legislation allows the state to bond for and construct two new buildings on INL’s Idaho Falls campus. The Cybercore Integration Center and Collaborative Computing Center will enhance our growing and valued partnerships with Idaho’s colleges and universities and increase the Laboratory’s cyber security and super-computing capabilities.

• In November, INL’s Transient Test Reactor (TREAT) was restored to operational status for the first time since 1994 – 12 months ahead of schedule and nearly $20 million under budget.

Restarting one of the world’s most highly capable transient test reactors keeps our nation in a leading role to develop advanced nuclear fuels and reactor technologies.

• Laboratory scientists developed an efficient and cost-effective process for turning captured carbon into usable products, something that could help the nation’s coal plants reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These are notable achievements. And yet I take equal pride in telling Idahoans that INL’s dedication to a just, robust and transparent culture never wavered in 2017.

Our employees continued to generously donate their time and money to those in need in our communities. And our commitment to inclusive diversity – all of us working together in pursuit of solutions to our most challenging national security and clean energy issues – is stronger today than it was 12 months ago.

For the fourth, consecutive year, the Department of Energy awarded INL an “A” grade for its performance. Laboratory contractor Battelle Energy Alliance had its management contract extended five years, through September 2024.

As 2017 ends, we feel a sense of accomplishment, in part because our 4,200 employees never lose sight of why we do this. At Idaho’s national laboratory, every day truly is about leaving the world better than we found it – safer, more secure, cleaner and more prosperous.

Peters is director of Idaho National Laboratory.