Research Quantities of
Commercial Nuclear
Fuel – FAQs

Nuclear fuel undergoes nuclear fission to sustain the chain reaction inside a nuclear reactor. The fuel is generally in the form of ceramic pellets encased in protective metal tubes to form fuel rods.
An arrangement of fuel rods forms a fuel assembly that is loaded into the reactor core. Inside the core, the nuclear fuel undergoes fission, producing heat to power turbines and generate electricity. A single fuel assembly spends about five years in a reactor on average before it can no longer sustain the nuclear chain reaction and is considered “used” or “spent” fuel.
Spent nuclear fuel can be managed in a way that protects both people and the environment. After undergoing fission inside a reactor core, nuclear fuel contains radioactive byproducts from the fission reactions.
Although these byproducts remain contained inside the fuel assemblies, spent nuclear fuel is radioactive and generates heat. When the fuel assemblies are first removed from the reactor core, they are placed in a spent fuel pool to cool over time. After the spent fuel assemblies have cooled to the point that they no longer need to be stored underwater, they are safely stored at the plant in large containers made of steel-reinforced concrete.

No, the 1995 Settlement Agreement allows the Department of Energy to send 55 metric tons (about 121,000 pounds) of its spent fuel to Idaho between 1995 and 2035. In 2011, Idaho and DOE agreed that research quantities of commercial fuel coming to INL for study would be counted against that total. In 2019, the two parties agreed to enhanced conditions under which small quantities material could be shipped to Idaho strictly for research purposes.

Commercial fuel cannot be sent to INL for the purpose of storage. Spent fuel from the Byron plant — 25 rods containing about 100 pounds of heavy metal — would be shipped to INL for critical research that INL is well-equipped to conduct.

No. These 100-pound research samples are not “waste” that the Department of Energy or the industry are trying to get rid of. This material could help answer important scientific questions, and the volume is tiny compared to the existing inventory stored in Idaho (~600,000 pounds) and stored nationwide at commercial sites (150 million pounds).

Safe long-term storage of fuels from today’s commercial nuclear reactors will require a better understanding of spent nuclear fuel properties after removal from the reactor. The 100-pound samples proposed for Idaho research are carefully selected, modern, commercial reactor fuel pellets that have the right characteristics to help answer important scientific questions.

Today’s commercial nuclear fuels are more efficient than those of the past, which has reduced costs for utilities and their customers. To maintain safe storage at utility locations around the U.S., the industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission need to better understand the physical and chemical characteristics of this high-efficiency fuel. The fuel currently stored at INL does not have the same features as today’s high-efficiency commercial fuel.

Yes, other national labs are eager to attract this important work. However, the nation has made considerable investments to build the unmatched research capabilities at INL, an internationally recognized nuclear energy research, development and demonstration laboratory. This research could be done elsewhere, but not as thoroughly because only INL has the full suite of capabilities.

No. Contaminants being monitored to protect the aquifer were not created by spent nuclear fuel stored at the site. These contaminants originated from disposal of legacy materials decades ago. Disposal practices today are vastly improved, providing multiple barriers between this material and the aquifer, such that there is no credible pathway for these materials to reach the aquifer.

Idaho National Laboratory