Nuclear energy provides 19 percent of our nation’s electricity, but 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity. If were are serious about combating climate change, nuclear energy and its ability to provide clean, base-load electricity must be an even bigger part of the nation’s energy portfolio.
The Idaho National Laboratory is the lead national lab on President Barack Obama’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear Initiative. INL researchers are continuing efforts to extend the lives of existing reactors, while helping industry develop the next generation of reactors.
INL has assisted NuScale Power’s efforts to develop the world’s first small modular reactor, which could begin producing power for cities in seven Western states as soon as 2024. That one reactor, potentially located on 35 acres in the Idaho desert, may render obsolete three coal plants that provide nearly 60 percent of the power to cities within the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.
INL also is working to address the spent fuel produced by reactors. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and the Department of Energy are working to find common ground and import research quantities of commercial spent fuel to the lab for critical testing.
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While INL is best known for nuclear energy research, it’s also important to understand that the lab’s clean-energy focus is diverse: INL researchers help farmers convert waste products to electricity; conduct vital testing on plug-in electric vehicles and charging stations; and do the science necessary to integrate renewables such as wind and solar onto power grids.
Fighting online attacks
INL also has emerged as a world leader in cybersecurity. In buildings on University Boulevard in Idaho Falls, researchers work day and night to keep power grids, water systems and other vital public assets safe from computer hackers.
In December 2015, hackers in Ukraine shut down power to roughly 230,000 residents, leaving them in the cold and dark for several hours. It’s no stretch to understand that hackers who can take down a generator with a few lines of code also could easily disable air traffic control, subway systems and traffic lights, and leave homes, schools and hospitals without power.
Cybersecurity is an area of major emphasis for Congress and the lab, which is partnering with Idaho universities — including Boise State — to train our next line of defense: the young people who will serve their communities, state and nation by protecting critical infrastructure. This partnership ensures that students from Idaho have an opportunity to enter this growing field.
All of these efforts help make our world cleaner and safer. They also drive Idaho’s economy.
INL employs more than 4,000 people (at an average of nearly $90,000 each), making Battelle Energy Alliance, which operates the lab, the state’s fifth-largest private employer. In 2015, INL spent $130 million with Idaho’s businesses and accounted for nearly 2.5 percent of state economic input, while increasing personal income by $703 million.
More than a decade ago, Congress split the cleanup and research functions at Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Eastern Idaho. The site was renamed Idaho National Laboratory and designated the nation’s lead nuclear research, development, deployment and demonstration laboratory.
Allowing cleanup and research to be handled by different companies on separate contracts has enhanced both missions. Over the last decade, the Department of Energy’s cleanup contractors have done yeoman’s work in meeting Settlement Agreement milestones, moving Cold War waste out of Idaho and protecting the East Snake Plain Aquifer.
This change in direction has had a major impact on all Idahoans. In fact, when historians document public policy decisions made during this period, the importance of that decision, spearheaded by Rep. Mike Simpson and Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, should not be overlooked.
I strongly encourage you to learn more about INL at inl.gov. You’ll likely be astonished at the incredible variety of important work that gets done, and the difference it makes to every Idahoan’s quality of life.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly about scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.