Critics of a plan to ship a relatively small number of spent-fuel rods to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) for use in research claim that it would violate federal law and a state agreement made in 1995 not to bring more nuclear waste into Idaho. Banning the shipment, they argue, would demonstrate Idaho’s resolve not to become an alternative to Nevada for the storage of spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants.
But without a complete understanding of what INL’s examination of high-burnup spent fuel already provides to Idaho — and the United States — how can we know whether to junk it in favor of something else?
First, research on high-burnup spent fuel is precisely that — a way to examine the fuel rods after years of irradiation, not the first step in shifting the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain project to Idaho. High-burnup research at INL’s hot cells — the world’s best — is more like an investment program whose purpose is to ensure the safety of fuel rods stored in concrete-and-steel dry casks at scores of nuclear plant sites around the country. Currently there are about 75,000 metric tons of spent fuel in storage, and the amount is increasing by 2,000 tons annually.
Critics maintain that, however small, the planned fuel-rod shipments will be followed by more in the future. This argument unfairly discounts the hard-won gains from decades of INL research on fuel rods and threatens the heart of the laboratory’s nuclear program: the commitment to developing safer and more efficient fuel designs.
The Department of Energy calculates the value of the two spent-fuel shipments — each totaling about 110 pounds — to be as much as $10-20 million a year for perhaps the next decade. But the total value of maintaining INL as the nation’s premier laboratory for nuclear research and development would total in the billions of dollars.
Second, INL research on fuel rods is critically important due to the increasing need for zero-carbon nuclear energy in the battle against climate change. Many operating nuclear plants are nearing the end of their lifetimes, and a new generation of reactors using better fuels is on the horizon. While I support renewable energy sources, the fact is that without nuclear power, the United States would fall short of its goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to safe and acceptable levels.
The planned spent-fuel shipments are consistent with the type of work that INL’s Materials and Fuels Complex has conducted over the past four decades. Accordingly, the potential impact of the research is covered by an Environmental Impact Statement that was done previously to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The DOE has recently prepared an analysis that reaches that conclusion. The INL should be allowed to proceed with its research without having to submit any additional NEPA documentation for this proposed action.
True, DOE has missed a deadline for converting liquid high-level waste from the defense program into a dry form and shipments of waste to a repository in New Mexico have been temporarily suspended. While the problems can’t be ignored, both are being addressed, and DOE has said they will be resolved soon.
Thus, as this debate continues, let us agree that INL’s research and development work on nuclear fuel cannot always be problem-free, and that when it comes to benefits, the lab’s work remains central to national security and contributes substantially to Idaho’s economy and protection of the environment. We shouldn’t give up a critical nuclear fuels program for no program at all. And we shouldn’t let politics interfere with the shipment of spent fuel to INL.
Roger Mayes is a retired INL scientist and manager with advanced degrees in environmental and radiological sciences who lives in Idaho Falls.