Thursday, August 15, 2019

National Reactor Innovation Center or "NRTS 2.0"? INL gets back to its nuclear roots

U.S. Sens. Jim Risch, left, and Mike Crapo, right, were on hand for the press conference Wednesday announcing the National Reactor Innovation Center coming to Idaho National Laboratory. Between them are DOE-Idaho Director Robert Boston (left) and INL Director Mark Peters. (Photo courtesy eastidahonews.com).
Before the more 21st century-sounding National Reactor Innovation Center was decided on, Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters said he was entertaining “NRTS 2.0” as a name.

NRTS stands for National Reactor Testing Station, which came to eastern Idaho in 1949 with the Atomic Energy Commission and later became INL. In a way, Wednesday’s announcement that INL would be the official home of NRIC marked a return to the lab’s roots, which have never completely gone away.

Over the past 70 years, NRTS/INL was home to 52 reactors, only four of which remain in operation. What Wednesday’s announcement means is that INL is going to be the place for nuclear collaboration between the public and private sectors. That is already happening with the Carbon Free Power Project, which involves INL, NuScale, an Oregon-based subsidiary of Fluor, Inc., and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a consortium of municipally owned electrical utilities, one of which is Idaho Falls Power. If all goes as planned, NRIC will be the site for 12 of NuScale’s prefabricated small modular reactors (SMRs). Licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is well under way, and a startup is anticipated for the mid-2020s.

The NuScale project is anticipated to create around 1,000 construction jobs to eastern Idaho, with a few hundred after the project has gone online. A lot of companies are watching the NuScale/UAMPS project very closely. Aside from the actual reactors, Idaho stands to benefit further from becoming a supply chain hub, Peters said at a press conference Wednesday, also attended by Idaho U.S. Sens, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch.

NRIC has also been designated as the site for the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), a fast-neutron source the DOE has deemed necessary for the next generation of nuclear reactors. Unlike light water reactors and pressurized water reactors, advanced reactors will be cooled by materials such as molten salt and thorium. They offer the possibility of burning spent nuclear fuel from LWRs and PWRs, and thus a solution to the waste disposal problem that continues to dog nuclear development in the United States. But before anything can happen, a lot of testing has to be done and a domestic source of fast neutrons is necessary. This is what Experimental Breeder Reactor-II did at Argonne National Laboratory-West between 1964 and 1994, before it was shut down.

“It’s hard to put an exact number on the amount of reactors that will be demonstrated here,” Peters said. “We’re talking to a lot of companies who have approached the laboratory and the department. I think there are a lot of interested players out there in the nuclear energy space.”

Also on hand for the announcement Wednesday was William D. Magwood IV, director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), an intergovernmental agency under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Magwood was DOE’s Director of Nuclear Energy 20 years ago when he announced at an Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Meeting that INL (then INEEL) had been designated the department’s lead nuclear laboratory.

As the Post Register’s business reporter at the time, I was covering that meeting and cynically thought to myself, “There’s a prize of dubious value.” Nuclear in the United States was at a low ebb in the late 1990s, so it wasn't unreasonable to think this.

A lot has happened in 20 years, but 20 to 30 years is how long it takes anything to happen in the nuclear industry, Peters said. Nuclear energy research in the U.S. might have been hanging on by a thread in 1999, but the threat of climate change and global warming was beginning to register in more and more minds, making carbon-free energy alternatives like nuclear a lot more appealing. In fact, it was a panel of scientific advisers who told President Bill Clinton to keep the nuclear option open.

In 2000, INEEL, Bechtel and Oregon State University researchers began a three-year project called the Multi-Application Small Light Water Reactor (MASLWR), which would become the basis for NuScale.

I have given up on writing stories quoting anyone predicting what they think is going to happen, near- or long-term. But the announcement that INL is returning to its nuclear roots is a big story with big implications for the region.