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Is It Time for a Change to the Idaho Settlement Agreement?

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When the nuclear waste cleanup deal was agreed to more than a decade ago, no one was thinking about small modular reactors.

Readers of this blog may be interested in the ongoing struggle of the Idaho National Laboratory to bring in small quantities of high burn up spent nuclear fuel for R&D purposes. So far this has not happened due to opposition by former Governors Andrus and Batt.

Their view is that until DOE cleans up 900,000 gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste, no spent fuel for an R&D mission should come to INL. This linkage they say is the only way to insure DOE will keep its promises.

As a result of opposition by Andrus, and the Idaho State Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Idaho lost the DOE R&D mission and the spent fuel went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

For its part DOE has indeed failed to make progress on the cleanup of the “sodium bearing liquid waste” which is left over from decades of reprocessing US Navy spent nuclear fuel. The project has ballooned in cost from an initial estimate in 2005 of $160M to a cost of nearly $600M in 2016 and the process treatment center still does not work.

The waste is stored in concrete underground tanks at the Idaho lab’s Arco Desert facility which is managed by a separate contractor than the one that runs the lab’s R&D programs.

On the other hand, NuScale is planning to build 12 50 MW SMRs at the Idaho site with the first one breaking ground as early as 2022. When complete these units will generate spent nuclear fuel, in Idaho, for at least the next 40-60 years.

The Settlement Agreement makes no provision for a dozen active commercial nuclear reactors generating new spent fuel well past the deadline of 2035 for all spent fuel in Idaho to be shipped to a geologic repository.

I made the case last December and again more recently that if Idaho does not accommodate NuScale’s project by updating the Settlement Agreement, that there are probably investors in Wisconsin who might be interested in taking advantage of that state’s legislature having lifted its ban on new nuclear power plants.

The Idaho Falls Post Register has a round up of opinions on the issue which thanks to a friend back in Idaho made it possible for me to share here a few relevant parts of the text of the article which was published on the newspaper’s web site this evening (6/18/16).

I said in my interview http://bit.ly/1Ug8kVX with Post Register reporter Luke Ramseth that it would be simple enough to calculate the actual estimated mass of spent fuel needed for R&D and the mass which would be generated by NuScale’s SMRs, and write those numbers into the Settlement Agreement.

This approach would keep the enforceable milestones in the Federal District Court Order and not compromise opportunities for redress over cleanup by Andrus, Batt, or Wasden.

Andrus and Batt have legitimate concerns about DOE’s lack of progress, but if they don’t sit down to talk things over with Energy Secretary Moniz, they could wind up with a much bigger problem. It would lead to a diminished nuclear R&D center, with its high paying jobs high tailing it for Oak Ridge and other more welcoming places.

As for NuScale the firm says it will submit its SMR design to the NRC for its safety review later this year. That process will take three-to-four years. Assuming all goes well, the firm’s customer UAMPS, a consortium of western utilities, will apply for a combined construction and operation license, a process which will also take a minimum of three years.

What this timetable means is that Andrus, Batt, Wasden, and anyone else who is hard over about not changing the Settlement Agreement, have some time to think about it, talk about it, and meet with DOE to put some flexibility into the document. The risks of no action are clear.

Comments are welcome.

Photo Credit: Cuksis via Flickr

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