Idaho National Laboratory could be the center of nuclear reactor development in America for decades to come, the U.S. Department of Energy announced Wednesday.

The National Reactor Innovation Center will be sited at INL, meaning INL will partner with private companies to test new nuclear reactors here. Depending on how many companies enter into reactor development and testing deals with INL and what these projects look like, this has the potential to be a major economic driver for eastern Idaho in the years to come.

“This is a way of planting the flag even deeper here for being the lead place for the development of the nuclear industry, not only in America but in the world,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Risch.

Risch and U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, who spearheaded the 2018 Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act that authorized the center’s creation, emphasized that the announcement coincided with the 70th anniversary of the lab, which was called the Nuclear Reactor Testing Station when it was founded in 1949.

“This will become part of the history of the national lab,” Risch said.

This will also likely raise the chances that the Versatile Test Reactor will be built at INL. This reactor would be the first new test reactor built in the U.S. in decades and give the nation a dedicated “fast-neutron-spectrum” testing capability, the Associated Press reported a week ago. DOE recently announced it will prepare an environmental impact statement as part of the process to build the test reactor at INL or at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

“This shows Idaho is the place where these developments can be and have a good likelihood of being located,” Crapo said.

Risch said DOE isn’t ready to announce the VTR’s location yet, “but we all know where the VTR is going to go.”

DOE is accepting public comment on the environmental impact statement until Sept. 4. After that, DOE will develop the draft environmental impact statement over the next several months, then when it is done open it for public comment for 45 days, said Crapo spokeswoman Melanie Baucom. Then, the final statement will be publicly available for 30 days before DOE issues its decision. DOE plans to make a siting decision in 2022 and have the VTR operational by 2026, said Risch spokeswoman Marty Boughton.

“The (environmental impact statement) will evaluate alternatives, including the site and other potential impacts of a VTR,” Boughton said. “Its conceptual design, costs, schedule, and other factors will be developed before the DOE decides whether to move forward.”

The reactor center announcement wasn’t unexpected. INL officials said in January that the lab seemed like the likely site for the center. The legislation, which had bipartisan support and passed both the House and Senate on voice votes, authorized creating the National Reactor Innovation Center and contained several other provisions to encourage collaboration between the DOE, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and private industry on new reactor development.

A House appropriations proposal for next year contains $5 million for the NRIC. The Senate hasn’t yet put together its Energy and Water appropriations proposal, but Risch and Crapo plan to “continue to advocate for robust funding for the NRIC and other nuclear energy priorities,” as Baucom put it.

“NRIC will enable the demonstration and deployment of advanced reactors that will define the future of nuclear energy,” U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a statement. “By bringing industry together with our national labs and university partners, we can enhance our energy independence and position the U.S. as a global leader in advanced nuclear innovation.”

Crapo and Risch said the legislation couldn’t specify that the center would go to Idaho, although it was always their intent to encourage it to be established here.

“Idaho and the lab had to earn that designation,” Crapo said. “And the lab did.”

INL Director Mark Peters said the center will be “a very, very important part of our future.” INL is already working with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and NuScale Power on plans to build 12 small modular reactors at the INL desert site. He said NuScale is, in a sense, the National Reactor Innovation Center’s first partner, but other companies have expressed interest in similar projects and he expects more companies to announce their plans publicly in the coming months and years.

“We’re talking to a lot of companies that are approaching the laboratory to explore the idea,” Peters said.

As for the local economic impact, Peters said the small modular reactor project is expected to create about 1,000 construction jobs and a few hundred permanent jobs after that. Other projects down the road, he said, could be similar.

“There’s a pretty profound impact on jobs,” he said.

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