The Idaho National Laboratory is where the nuclear power industry was born in 1949.
Todd Allen, INL Science & Technology Deputy Director, said INL and the Department of Energy have invested $500 million in capital expenditures to merge the nuclear research mission under one lab.
Since 2005, the main contractor, Battelle Energy Alliance, which calls itself the Idaho National Laboratory, has refocused the work of the site on its historic mission: nuclear energy research. Its selling point is that the existing nuclear facilities — including test reactors that can replicate the long-term effects of radiation on materials and replicate accident conditions — make it the only research site where the full nuclear cycle can be studied in one place.
Workers live mostly in Idaho Falls and take buses to the site, a secure area with its own contract security force. In addition to nuclear research, INL scientists work on cybersecurity. Others work for the Pentagon, where INL nuclear and security expertise is valued.
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Private nuclear companies such as TerraPower, founded and chaired by Bill Gates, have agreements for INL scientists to work on TerraPower’s advanced nuclear reactor designs and to test their fuels. Gates visited in 2013.
The lab has 579 buildings, three reactors, 111 miles of transmission lines, 177 miles of paved roads, 14 miles of railroad tracks, and its own bus system and security force. Many of the lab’s newest buildings are in Idaho Falls. In many ways, INL is like its own city.
“We have hand-in-hand capability to do nuclear research, but we also have our own electrical grid,” Allen said. “We have a running wireless (security testing) facility. We run our own mass transit system.”
NUCLEAR ENERGY, NUCLEAR SUBS
The 890-square-mile Department of Energy site, 27 miles west of Idaho Falls, was where the first usable amount of electricity was generated by nuclear power — in 1951, at Experimental Breeder Reactor 1. Soon after, another reactor produced enough power to light the nearby town of Arco.
Before the atomic energy commission came in 1949, the U.S. Navy used the area as a site to test 16-inch naval guns manufactured in Pocatello. Later, Admiral Hyman Rickover — who oversaw the nuclear Navy — built the first prototype of the Nautilus nuclear submarine there, along with a chemical processing plant to recycle nuclear fuel from submarines and other government reactors. Engineers also built a reactor designed to power aircraft, a project that was scrapped by President John F. Kennedy when the radioactive materials released from its test could be measured as far away as Michigan.
Eventually, 52 reactors were built on the site, which is the size of Luxembourg and located in the Idaho desert far from population centers. Today just three reactors operate.
The first generation of reactors in the 1950s and ’60s was used in the original research for the light-water reactors that are still in service today around the world. Experimental Breeder Reactor II, a different design that uses metal fuel and produces more fuel than it burns, was built in 1964. After several design changes, it was reborn as the Integral Fast Reactor, a breeder that could shut itself off and cool down even if abandoned or struck by a disaster.
The Clinton administration ended the project in 1994 and EBR II was shut down. It is still being decommissioned. But its support facilities remain as a part of the INL’s continued efforts to develop new generations of nuclear power reactors.
The Department of Energy contractors manage and store 300 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods at INL from Navy and government reactors in casks, including the melted core of the Three Mile Island reactor. It also has decommissioned more than 200 contaminated structures, including fuel storage pools, waste storage tanks, buildings and 50 nuclear reactors.
RADIATION, WASTE, CYBERSECURITY
Over the years, INL has had several notable nuclear material releases in addition to the 1960s nuclear jet engine test. In the 1950s, large amounts of radioactive fission products were released from the chemical plant that was recycling highly radioactive fuel to obtain the isotope lanthanum.
A steam explosion in the Stationary Low Power Reactor No. 1 in 1961 killed three operators. One of them had pulled from the reactor the control rod that slows the nuclear reaction. Dozens of workers were contaminated in the effort to remove the injured workers who later died. That remains the only reactor accident in the U.S. that caused an immediate fatality.
The INL became a waste storage facility for low-level and long-lived nuclear contaminated material from the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, which made plutonium bombs and triggers for hydrogen weapons. Thousands of barrels of gloves and clothes contaminated with plutonium and americium were dumped haphazardly at the INL site; contaminated water flowed into the aquifer below. Liquid waste from other facilities also was pumped into the aquifer.
When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the Department of Energy signed a number of agreements with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Idaho promising to clean up past contamination at the site. Billions of dollars have been spent to process 9 million gallons of high-level liquid waste and to process and repackage contaminated material.
Beyond its nuclear work, INL has become a leader in cybersecurity and has the capability to test large-scale energy strategies.
If I was to put it all together in a single tagline, I would say we look like a well-characterized city or region configured to do energy or security research at scale.
Todd Allen, Idaho National Laboratory Science & Technology Deputy Lab Director
INL’s economic impact?
INL created more than 24,000 Idaho jobs and generated $3.5 billion in economic impact in 2010, according to Boise State University economists. It then had more than 8,000 people directly working for the government or its contractors, and an additional 16,133 people had jobs due to the multiplier effect of INL being there. Recent economic reports have included only the lab side, not the cleanup side, and they show about 3,900 people working there today at an average pay of $87,500 and an economic output of about $1.4 billion. The overall number is likely similar to the 2010 numbers, but slightly down due to federal budget cuts.