Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Spent fuel research shipment will pave way for tons more

At the beginning of 2015, the Department of Energy succeeded in wresting a preliminary agreement from Idaho’s governor and attorney general to allow two shipments of “research quantities” of commercial spent nuclear fuel into Idaho. So far, the attorney general has insisted, reasonably, that neither shipment can occur until the Idaho National Laboratory makes progress meeting some of its cleanup challenges. Despite that stance, we should not forget that the proposal, if implemented, would almost certainly open the state to substantially more nuclear waste in the near future.

The 1995 Settlement Agreement banned imports of commercial spent fuel after decades of nuclear waste shipments into Idaho raised opposition throughout the state. The framework for “research quantities” of spent fuel was set in a 2011 memorandum of agreement between INL and the state.

But the DOE and its contractor, Battelle, tried to counter concerns about the new deal — two 25-rod shipments within the year — by noting that the quantities involved were oh-so-small: about 100 pounds per shipment. Even so, former Idaho governors Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt spoke out against the new move, and Batt reminded us: “You take an ounce of the waste from the federal government, they want to give you 10,000 pounds. And they always say they’ll move it out, but they won’t.”

In round numbers, Batt’s words were both a statement of fact and a prophecy.

One of the proposed shipments contains 25 spent fuel rods from the North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia. They are called “sister rods.” They’ve been chosen as representative of the whole reactor core. They will come to Idaho for examinations to establish the baseline for future studies. In the meantime, another 15 to 20 metric tons of spent fuel very similar to the sister rods will be stored in a cask at North Anna for about 10 years. According to the Final Test Plan, the cask will then be sent to an “off-site Fuel Examination Facility” so its contents can be examined.

Battelle has been building and modifying spent fuel facilities at INL for a number of years, which might attract not just the first 100 pounds, but the entire 15 to 20 tons from North Anna. All official discussions of the project avoid specific mention of when any pound or any ton of spent fuel, once here, might leave.

All the spent nuclear fuel rods that may come here are “high burnup,” meaning they were left in the reactor longer to increase the operators’ profit margin. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been approving the practice of higher burnup across the industry. But the cladding of the spent fuel produced may be less ductile and therefore more likely to crack. That makes storage and transportation difficult.

Virtually everyone involved in trying to solve this country’s nuclear waste problem recognizes a key impediment: No one trusts the federal government’s ability or even its intention to live up to its commitments. The current situation is a perfect illustration. The government gave the go-ahead to practices that might make nuclear waste even more difficult to handle. And now the government wants to back away from its promise to spare Idaho from increasing commercial spent nuclear fuel storage.

Battelle representatives explained the entire North Anna proposal reasonably thoroughly to members of Gov. Butch Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission on Sept. 26, 2013. It’s a familiar story of unacknowledged risks and unfulfilled commitments. Everyone in Idaho should listen again.

Beatrice Brailsford is with the Snake River Alliance, Idaho’s grass-roots nuclear watchdog and clean energy advocate.