IDAHO FALLS • A plan to bring two shipments of commercial spent nuclear fuel to Idaho National Laboratory touched off a statewide firestorm in January.
Former governors Phil Batt and Cecil Andrus blasted the shipment plan in joint news conferences and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said he wouldn’t allow in the fuel rods until a troubled radioactive waste treatment plant is up and running.
Now, the stakes have grown exponentially.
Nuclear watchdog group Snake River Alliance last month pointed out one of the shipments was tethered to a much larger future project — one that involved conducting research on a massive amount of commercial spent fuel.
It was, at first, the idea of importing 200 pounds of spent fuel to Idaho; now it is the possibility of 20 metric tons.
It was the idea of lucrative research. Now it raises questions for some about the 1995 Settlement Agreement and the idea of Idaho as the nation’s de facto spent nuclear fuel repository.
No commercial spent fuel shipments appear headed Idaho’s way for at least several months. Yet the battle isn’t finished for the former governors and others who say they want to ensure Idaho doesn’t become a destination for the nation’s growing stockpile of commercial nuclear waste. DOE and INL officials, meanwhile, continue planning for the shipments, while gathering public input on whether an in-depth environmental impact study is necessary.
“Right now there is no permanent repository for commercial spent nuclear fuel. So anything that comes to Idaho, it’s highly unlikely it leaves in the foreseeable future,” said Laird Lucas, a Boise environmental attorney representing Batt and Andrus.
Larger Research Project on the Table
In a September 2013 meeting of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission 2.0, officials discussed the two shipments of commercial spent fuel they hoped to bring to INL.
Officials then turned to the possibility of a larger, related spent fuel project at the lab, one that would require bringing in some 20 metric tons of high-burnup spent fuel.
INL Nuclear Engineer Shannon Bragg-Sitton explained that one of the initial 25-rod shipments of “high-burnup” fuel rods, from North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Virginia, would be used to “develop the tools, capabilities and procedures” to perform research on the larger future shipment of “sister rods” from the same facility.
High-burnup fuel has been left longer in the harsh environment of a commercial reactor — a popular technique allowing utilities to eke out more power before installing new uranium fuel rods. High-burnup fuel is hotter and more radioactive than regular spent fuel.
Such fuel is rapidly accumulating at nuclear power plants around the country. Yet little is known about what will happen to the fuel as it sits in storage for years, perhaps decades.
So the plan, Bragg-Sitton said at the 2013 meeting, is to eventually load the 20 metric tons of high-burnup fuel from North Anna and send it to a national laboratory for an extended period of time. At the laboratory, temperatures and gases inside the cask could be monitored remotely. Every few years researchers would crack the cask open for a visual inspection, and perform further research on individual fuel rods.
A 32-page draft supplement analysis document released by the DOE last month also confirmed the possibility of the 20 metric ton shipment, which it said would occur “sometime after 2027.”
“DOE has not yet proposed a facility for the post-2027 activities,” DOE officials wrote. “However, prior to shipment, DOE will identify candidate sites with facilities capable of performing the work and prepare an appropriate (environmental) analysis.”
At the 2013 meeting, INL Director John Grossenbacher said the research would be important to maintaining the lab’s lead nuclear status. Other labs would also want the job, worth about $20 million, according to Bragg-Sitton’s 2013 presentation. Officials say the smaller shipments are worth about $10-20 million per year, in federal research funding, for the next decade. But Grossenbacher said there would be major hurdles to bringing in such a large shipment to Idaho, considering tight restrictions of the 1995 Settlement Agreement.
“This is a significant change from the Settlement Agreement,” he told the LINE Commission members. “It would be a big deal. It would require the approval of state authorities. Obviously it would be an issue of significant public interest and appropriately so. So it’s not too early, in my opinion, to start talking about this.”
Former Governors, Environmental Group not Budging
Batt, Andrus and the Snake River Alliance have said allowing in even small amounts of commercial nuclear fuel — which INL has never received before — might open the door to more. And recently-discovered talks about the 20 metric ton commercial fuel shipment have seemingly reinforced their suspicions.
A national repository for high-level nuclear waste has yet to be found, they point out. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, thought for years to be an ideal location to send the waste, is stalled out.
“I have no sympathy for DOE whatsoever,” Andrus said in a recent interview. “They got us into this with their refusal to provide storage at Yucca Mountain or any other place. I’m determined Idaho will not become the de facto Yucca Mountain.”
Beatrice Brailsford, nuclear program director for Snake River Alliance, also has adamantly opposed the two smaller research shipments. She recently discovered the 2013 meeting recording about the proposed larger shipment.
“If we’re the only place in the country that’s said yes, then we’re it,” she said of commercial spent fuel.
Brailsford knows under current state regulations governing nuclear waste — the Settlement Agreement — such a large shipment of commercial fuel isn’t allowed. But she said there “is a lot of talk about modifying” those regulations.
“I think and hope changing the Settlement Agreement would be more difficult than supporters of bringing in spent fuel possibly believe,” she said.
INL and DOE officials have detailed the research to be done on the first two shipments. They have outlined how the waste would be handled until a permanent repository is found. Grossenbacher, at a May public address, said the Idaho site already safely stores roughly 300 tons of government-owned spent fuel, though none of it is from commercial reactors.
But Andrus said news of the possible 20 metric ton commercial shipment shows DOE hasn’t told the public the entire story. Adding to his frustration, he sent DOE a list of policy questions and requests for public information about the two smaller research shipments in January. DOE officials have yet to provide the requested information, he said.
“I have been frustrated with the federal government and DOE ever since 1972,” said the 83-year-old Andrus. “It hasn’t changed. Every time you turn over another rock, (they say), ‘Oops, well, we didn’t tell you about that either.’”