Spent nuclear fuel shipments to Idaho National Laboratory looking unlikely

There are growing concerns that two lucrative shipments of commercial spent nuclear fuel to Idaho National Laboratory for testing won’t happen, and that the missed opportunity could severely damage the lab’s research reputation over the long term.

A Aug. 10 letter from Gov. Butch Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) Commission 2.0 spurred new concerns over the shipments’ status. The letter said the U.S. Department of Energy set out a two-month deadline for the state to approve one of the two shipments, otherwise the spent fuel would be sent to a different national laboratory. That laboratory likely would be Oak Ridge, in Tennessee.

John Kotek, DOE’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, mentioned the two-month window at a July 13 meeting, which could give state officials less than a month from now to sort things out.

Losing out on one or both spent fuel shipments would mean losing $10-20 million per year in federal research money for INL through the end of the decade, lab officials have said. In addition, lab and state officials worry not allowing in the pair of shipments could hurt the lab’s reputation and cause it to be overlooked for big federal research projects in the future.

“Years of work have been invested establishing the INL as the lead nuclear research lab and for us to not allow them the very resource they need to do research, sends all the wrong messages,” Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer said in a Thursday email.

Sayer serves on the LINE Commission and wrote the Monday letter, which was addressed to Otter. It was sent to several other state officials, too, including Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Wasden has said he won’t allow in the spent fuel research shipments until DOE gets a troubled nuclear waste cleanup facility, the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit, up and running. Problems at the facility mean DOE is out of compliance with the 1995 Settlement Agreement, which governs nuclear waste cleanup in Idaho.

In a Thursday interview, Wasden said Sayer and the LINE Commission never came to him to discuss his position on the spent fuel shipments.

“I thought it was interesting, or at least ironic, that Mr. Sayer in that letter to the governor stated my position, but never took the time to talk to me about it,” he said. “A conversation would have helped flesh out why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Wasden said his position remains the same, despite signs that the treatment facility might not begin treating some 900,000 gallons of liquid waste until next year. But Wasden also said no one from DOE told him there was a specific deadline for the shipments. He found out by reading Sayer’s LINE Commission letter.

In addition, on a site tour in May, DOE and cleanup officials told Wasden start up of the treatment unit would be feasible by September.

“I see that working out perfectly,” Wasden told the Post Register at the time, explaining that he would be able to uphold the Settlement Agreement while also operating within a window that would allow timely shipment of the spent fuel to INL.

But the facility won’t be operating thatsoon. It recently began a second round of testing and inspections, which could last several months.

“I really want this (nuclear research) material to come into Idaho. Idaho has a unique set of capabilities,” Wasden said Thursday. “But I have a commensurate responsibility to see that the cleanup is done.”

Sayer said he and the LINE Commission “did not intend any disrespect,” to Wasden. “We were simply aware of his concerns and hoped our findings would be a resource for he and his team.”

Sayer said he scheduled a meeting with Wasden early this week.

“I anticipate a respectful conversation,” he said.

Sayer said he is “deeply concerned about the messages” the state is sending to DOE and the nuclear industry. He said not allowing in the spent fuel shipments could impact the lab’s ability to attract top scientists.

“By refusing this research fuel we (are) damaging Idaho’s fifth largest employer’s ability to attract the highest talent,” Sayer said. “We work tirelessly to support our other top employers, the INL deserves the same support.”

The proposed research would focus on “high-burnup” fuel, which is accumulating at commercial nuclear power plants across the country. One shipment would be used to research fuel recycling techniques. The other would be used to research what happens to the fuel when it is placed in storage casks for years or decades.

Initially, DOE requested to send one shipment from Byron Nuclear Generating Station two months ago, and the second from North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in January. The shipments would total about 200 pounds of spent fuel. But the North Anna shipment is tethered to a larger future research project on fuel storage that, if approved, would require a 20 metric ton shipment of spent fuel.

A waiver to allow in the spent fuel shipments requires the signature of both Otter and Wasden. Otter has been mostly quiet on the subject, but his office issued a statement Friday to the Post Register which appeared to contrast Wasden’s position requiring the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit to first be operational.

The statement said that “Otter’s position has not changed,” and that “cleanup must occur as outlined in the (Settlement Agreement).”

“That being said, he also supports the long-term mission of the INL as the lead lab for nuclear research,” the statement said. “In order for the lab to maintain that position, the Governor believes the INL needs to have timely access to small amounts of material. Simply put, you can’t do research on material that isn’t here, and at some point our inability to access that material begins to impact the long-term viability of the mission at the INL.”

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper said Thursday that she is also concerned that the standoff over the shipments could damage the lab.

“I am hopeful that as we move forward, policymakers in Boise will recognize that the cleanup mission at the site is separate from the nuclear research mission,” she said.

“I fear that we’ve missed the boat,” she said. “I hope that we don’t let any more tremendous research opportunities slip through our fingers.”

INL initially turned down an interview request about the status of the shipments with Deputy Director Todd Allen, and said INL and DOE had no comment. Later Friday, a spokeswoman sent an emailed statement from Allen.

“Some other labs in the DOE system have various capabilities to perform some of this research. It’s important work,” the statement said, in part. “This funding and the attendant employment opportunities would follow this research work.”