Strong partnerships advance nuclear research, cleanup milestones

By Dr. John Wagner

For nearly three decades, state leaders have worked to protect the interests of Idaho citizens and the environment by enforcing the 1995 Settlement Agreement with the federal government. That agreement represents a compromise by both the state and the Department of Energy that addressed complex litigation involving the shipment, storage and removal of nuclear waste.

At the same time, the state has worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to grow Idaho National Laboratory’s mission. Idahoans understand how vital the lab’s clean energy and national security missions are to our state, nation, and the world. They also recognize the importance of INL to the state economy.

The results of these dual efforts have been remarkable. Cleanup at the INL Site has made extraordinary progress, meeting hundreds of milestones ahead of schedule. And the lab has grown into an energy and security research and development powerhouse that employs more than 6,000 people and has an annual budget nearing $2 billion and an annual economic impact on the state approaching $4 billion.

Recently, the state of Idaho affirmed that DOE and its cleanup contractor, Idaho Environmental Coalition, have reached an important milestone: the successful production of more than 100 cannisters of treated liquid sodium bearing waste.

Reaching this milestone shows meaningful progress in the treatment and ultimate disposition of legacy liquid waste.

All of us at INL are grateful to the state and the Idaho Environmental Coalition for their diligence and support.

“During my time in public office, I’ve advocated strongly for the federal government to uphold its responsibilities and keep its promise to Idaho by cleaning up the INL Site,” said Idaho Gov. Brad Little. “At the same time, I’ve worked with state leaders, legislators, and community advocates to grow the lab’s mission into a prosperous and indispensable national and energy security asset for our country.”

Surpassing this milestone also allows the laboratory to advance its nuclear energy mission by receiving up to 400 kilograms of commercial spent nuclear fuel annually for vital R&D. Research and development that, in partnership with the nuclear industry and utilizing the unique facilities, capabilities, and expertise at INL, will enable nuclear fuel innovations focused on improved safety and economic performance of our existing nuclear power plants and provide critical technical data related to the safe and secure management and disposition of spent nuclear fuel, including the potential for recycling.

The 93 operating reactors in the U.S. produce nearly 20% of our electricity and more than half of our nation’s zero carbon-emitting electricity. Meeting carbon reduction goals, in the U.S. and across the world, will require the development and deployment of hundreds of new nuclear reactors. That’s why more than 20 countries pledged at the United Nation’s climate change conference to triple nuclear energy power by 2050.

Advanced nuclear technologies will continue to provide zero carbon-emitting electricity, but new reactors will be more versatile and able to power large industrial processes, manufacturing plants, desalination systems, transportation hubs, and support energy independence by powering remote military installations and rural communities.

Before this can happen, INL, the nation’s nuclear energy laboratory, must conduct research and performance testing on today’s commercial nuclear materials to establish their potential and limitations for providing abundant, clean energy inside a new reactor design.

That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the milestones that have been met and the progress we’ve made, both in processing and removing nuclear waste from the INL Site and growing the laboratory’s mission and impact. Getting here has not been easy, but through dedication, transparent communication, and a persistent partnership, Idaho is in a strong position to support the nuclear industry.   

In the next couple years, INL will operate two new reactors and one reactor experiment, the first novel reactors on its site in a half century. The MARVEL microreactor will provide valuable information to researchers and industry and educate the nuclear energy community on a variety of topics, including safety, licensing, environmental assessments, performance, the fuel cycle, and more. Project Pele is a mobile microreactor being developed for the U.S. Department of Defense, and MCRE is a molten salt reactor experiment being conducted in partnership with the private sector. Other reactor testing and demonstrations projects are expected to follow shortly thereafter.

None of this happens without the great work of the cleanup contractor and our allies in Idaho state government.

“I’m pleased with the responsible cleanup efforts at the INL site,” said Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador. “My office remains committed to protecting Idaho and its natural resources, while continuing to support the lab’s nuclear energy and national security missions.”

As INL celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2024, I am proud to say that this is the place that gave birth to the nuclear energy industry and the U.S. Nuclear Navy. Our legacy has made the nation and the world safer, cleaner, and more prosperous and I, along with state leaders, remain committed to protecting Idaho’s people and environment while working to achieve INL’s vision of changing the world’s energy future and securing our nation’s critical infrastructure.

Dr. John C. Wagner is the director of Idaho National Laboratory and president of Battelle Energy Alliance LLC. Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy.

Idaho National Laboratory