John Wagner

John Wagner

The new director of Idaho National Laboratory’s first day on the job was Friday.

John Wagner is a Missouri native who was INL’s associate laboratory director for nuclear science and technology before moving into his new role and who worked at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 17 years before moving to Idaho five years ago. He said he is passionate about the lab’s entire mission.

“I know this laboratory,” he said in an interview Monday. “I certainly know the nuclear portfolio. I know a fair bit about the broader laboratory, but I have a lot to learn there.”

However, his background is in nuclear energy and that is the element of INL’s work he is already most familiar with, and he said he is passionate about moving forward the reactor research being done at INL. One of his motives for moving here, he said, was to contribute in a more direct and personal way to nuclear energy development in the United States.

“We are on the cusp of demonstrating several advanced reactors,” he said. “Some of them will be demonstrated here, some of them will be demonstrated on other sites.”

Wagner said INL is working on an internal project to demonstrate a small nuclear reactor within 24 months, and it is working with external customers, including the Department of Defense, on other reactor projects. He said INL’s goal is to demonstrate at least two reactors by 2025, and he also pointed to a project where INL is working with the companies TerraPower and X-energy on a project to build two reactors by 2027. He said he expects announcements on additional reactor projects later this week.

Wagner replaces former Director Mark Peters, who had run the lab since 2015 and recently left INL for a job as executive vice president for laboratory operations at Battelle Energy Alliance, the contractor that runs day-to-day operations at the lab.

Wagner said he is “optimistic” about the Carbon Free Power Project, a plan involving Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and the Portland-based reactor developers NuScale Power to build 12 small modular reactors on the DOE’s desert site west of Idaho Falls. While more than 30 cities and power systems in Utah and elsewhere in the region are part of the project, a few have dropped out over the past few months, while Idaho Falls has opted to stay in for now but has reduced its commitment to the project. The reactors are expected to be operational by 2029.

Wagner acknowledged he has seen ebbs and flows in support for the project, but he thinks the fact that it will reduce the need for fossil fuel-generated power in the region will help get it over the finish line.

“I think the new administration will have good support for that project, so I’m optimistic about the project being successful,” he said.

Wagner also said he is excited about the Versatile Test Reactor, which would be the first new test reactor built in the U.S. in decades and would test how fuels, materials and sensors hold up when battered with radiation in the form of fast neutrons, which the reactor could generate at higher speeds and concentrations than existing test infrastructure. DOE announced in November that INL is the preferred site for it.

“It would be huge for Idaho National Laboratory,” he said, adding that it would both greatly help with research and create thousands of jobs locally during its construction.

While Wagner’s background may be in nuclear power, he said “in no way should that be taken as less interest in other areas.” Before coming in as director, Wagner said he was part of the senior leadership team and worked closely with Peters on strategy and plans to continue much of what he was doing.

“I’m a part of that,” he said. “I have no interest in changing that.”

While nuclear energy and spending on reactor development has its critics on both the right and the left, generally speaking, funding for nuclear energy has enjoyed bipartisan support recently — several major bills increasing funding or support for nuclear power that have passed over the past few years were co-sponsored by Idaho’s Republican senators in conjunction with Democrats.

Wagner said framing nuclear power as part of the answer to dealing with climate change has helped to increase support for it among environmentalists.

“A lot of it comes down to you really can’t get to the end state of the goals these people are after without nuclear energy,” he said.

Wagner said the lab is used to adapting to the different priorities of different presidents, and he expects the lab’s missions as it relates to areas such as climate change and cybersecurity will mean that it will also enjoy a high degree of support from President Joe Biden.

“I expect that we are well-aligned with the priorities of the incoming administration,” he said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.