Addressing a recent City Club of Idaho Falls gathering, Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters praised Idaho's elected officials for their solid support of INL as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) lab confronts formidable cybersecurity, homeland security, nuclear energy, radioactive waste management and nonproliferation challenges.
In a presentation titled “Securing the Nation's Energy Future,” Peters recalled how he met former U.S. Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus a few months after he started directing INL in October 2015.
Andrus, who died last August at the age of 85, and Phil Batt, another former Idaho governor, have been vocal critics of allowing more spent nuclear fuel to be shipped to INL in violation of the “1995 Settlement Agreement,” expressing concern that Idaho could become the nation's de facto spent nuclear fuel repository.
The agreement struck between Idaho, the U.S. Navy and DOE nearly 25 years ago allows for 1,135 shipments of spent fuel to come to INL for interim storage over 40 years, including 575 shipments from the Navy. It also could come from other DOE sites, foreign research reactors, universities and private companies directly supporting DOE research and development.
The agreement also calls for DOE to remove all spent nuclear fuel from Idaho no later than 2035, treat all high level INL waste for final disposal elsewhere by 2035, remove transuranic waste by no later than Dec. 31, 2018, and place all spent fuel in dry storage by Dec. 31, 2023, but not above the Snake River Plain Aquifer.
If DOE fails to remove all spent fuel by 2035, Idaho could fine it $60,000 per day. If it fails to meet any agreement milestones, the state could ask a federal court to block further spent fuel shipments to Idaho. Some of those milestones have been missed, especially pertaining to the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) and removal of 900,000 gallons of liquid nuclear waste stored underground at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC).
Peters indicated that when he first met Andrus, the late governor was very frank about upholding the 1995 agreement's terms. “I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. All of us miss Governor Andrus,” he said.
Peters commended Idaho's congressional delegation, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and the state's legislators for their continued robust support for INL and its many activities, heaping special praise on the Idaho Legislature for funding a Collaborative Computing Center and a Cybercore Integration Center that will be constructed on 13 acres, with groundbreaking scheduled in mid-April.
The Legislature's Joint Finance Appropriations Committee (JFAC) also recently approved $3 million in funding for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES), a research and education consortium located in Idaho Falls that involves INL, Idaho State University, Boise State University, the University of Idaho and the University of Wyoming.
Peters praised Rep. Raul Labrador for being generous with his time when Peters is in Washington; Sen. Mike Crapo, who has been very instrumental in pushing nuclear innovations, and Sen. Jim Risch, who is deeply committed to INL's national security mission. He was especially effusive in his praise for Rep. Mike Simpson, who chairs the U.S. House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
“INL owes so much to the chairman for what he has done,” Peters said of Simpson. “He's a tremendous leader for the state.”
The day before his City Club address, Peters was on Capitol Hill in Washington testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology about how DOE's laboratories provide world-leading technology in science. It was the same day Zachary Tudor, INL associate lab director of National and Homeland Security, testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee about cybersecurity threats.
Peters mentioned he has spent a lot of time in the nation's capital dealing with pressing budget, national security, nuclear energy and high technology issues. Noting that about 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear energy, he said many commercial reactors are undergoing financial and legal stresses, and some units are being prematurely decommissioned when they can safely operate for 20 to 80 years.
“If the existing fleet isn't protected and preserved, it will be difficult to go forward,” he said, adding that Russia and China are constructing nuclear reactors. “R&D budgets need to be stable.”
With Iran and North Korea posing threats to national security, it's even more urgent to develop the next generation of nuclear technology, he emphasized, pointing out the Trump administration is bullish for nuclear energy, and the sector is getting a lot of attention in Washington.
Cybersecurity funding is not under pressure nor facing cutbacks like other federal programs. He mentioned the federal government has the capability to closely monitor the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea. It also is doing all in its power to protect the nation's extensive electricity grid.
“I'm ready for a more optimistic environment,” Peter said, praising partnerships between the federal government and private companies. He said plans by NuScale Power and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) for locating first-of-its-kind small modular reactors (SMRs) that could generate 50 megawatts of power at the INL site have made significant licensing and financing progress in recent months.
Two bills enacted by the Idaho Legislature that would have a positive impact on the NuScale project at INL are awaiting Otter's signature in Boise. One would allow a property tax exemption originally targeted for an Areva project to be applied to the small modular reactors. The other would exempt two of 12 SMRs from sales tax. Federal tax credits also may be implemented.
Peters predicted if the SMR technology proves successful upon starting its first commercial production of nuclear energy in 2026, that could create hundreds of construction jobs, unleash an energy renaissance and replicate in eastern Idaho the “Magic Valley miracle” that spawned Chobani, Clif Bars and a host of other businesses in the Twin Falls region.
Peters, however, warned if small amounts of spent nuclear fuel cannot be brought into Idaho for research purposes, the INL's overall mission will be jeopardized. “If they don't let us do this, we can't solve bigger problems.”
He said when DOE Secretary Rick Perry visited the Idaho site last May, discussions between DOE, Otter and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden were initiated and trust between the state and federal government began to be rebuilt.
The INL director noted that President Donald Trump recently praised last year's reactivation of INL's world class Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT). Peters also expressed confidence its Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project (AMWTP) will continue to be operated in the long term.
INL recently lost $20 million in federal research funding when spent nuclear fuel had to be diverted from INL to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a development Peters characterized as “a slippery slope.”