BOISE — The biggest threat to the nation's primary lab for nuclear research is a prohibition from bringing in small quantities of spent nuclear fuel for research, the lab's director said Tuesday.
Mark Peters told members of the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee that the situation could cause some to question the Idaho National Laboratory's status as the nation's lead nuclear energy laboratory.
"If you're the lead nuclear energy laboratory and you can't bring in small amounts of material to do research, then why are you the lead nuclear energy laboratory?" Peters said.
Idaho officials are blocking the spent nuclear fuel because the U.S. Department of Energy has missed deadlines required in a 1995 agreement to clean up nuclear waste at its 890-square-mile sprawling site west of the city of Idaho Falls. Penalties for missing the deadlines include fines and preventing spent fuel from entering the state.
The main problem for the Energy Department is the inability of its Integrated Waste Treatment Unit to process 900,000 gallons of high-level liquid nuclear waste stored at the site, causing the federal agency to miss a deadline required in the agreement with Idaho. The waste is stored in tanks above a giant aquifer that supplies water to cities and farms in the region.
Federal officials have said the biggest problem at the treatment plant involves a cylindrical vessel filled with billions of tiny sand-like particles that is heated to 1,200 degrees. The plan is to inject the liquid radioactive waste so that it coats the tiny particles that would ultimately be sealed in stainless steel canisters. However, simulated waste used in practice runs coated the inside of the cylinder, causing a bark-like substance to form and disrupting the process.
The Energy Department initially had a 2012 deadline to remove the liquid waste, but that deadline has been extended multiple times.
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, as a result, has blocked shipments of spent research fuel to the lab. Wasden declined to comment Tuesday. But he has previously said penalties in the 1995 agreement are the only enforcement tools Idaho has to get the Energy Department to remove the liquid waste.
Peters said after the committee meeting that experts tell him the treatment plant could be operating sometime later this year.
The Energy Department site has been used for nuclear waste disposal and storage for decades. The federal government has been cleaning up the area following federal court battles and several agreements in the 1990s amid concerns by Idaho officials that the state was becoming the nation's nuclear waste dump.
Committee Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, said he would like to see the state give the Energy Department a waiver to the 1995 agreement and be allowed to bring in the spent fuel for research to the Idaho National Laboratory.
"I think it's critical to INL that they be able to get small amounts of research material," he said after the meeting. "I think if we don't get it, somebody else will grab that, and we'll be out of luck."
The lab has a significant economic impact in eastern Idaho and the state. In 2018, the lab employed more than 4,300 workers with an annual average wage of just under $100,000. Lab officials say direct spending by the lab in the state last year was more than $1 billion.