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New director sees more than nuclear power for INL

New director sees more than nuclear power for INL

New Idaho National Laboratory director John C. Wagner acknowledges his education and experience in nuclear engineering “certainly signals the laboratory’s primary mission is nuclear energy,” but he is also prioritizing INL’s other fields of renewable energy, cybersecurity and more.

“In no way should that be taken as less interest in those areas,” Wagner told media outlets, his second day as director. “I look forward to getting to understand those other areas as well. There’s some learning (for me) to do, with respect to the rest of the lab. I’m quite excited.”

Wagner is especially looking forward to demonstrating advanced nuclear reactors, some planned as being ready within just a few years. The goal is to demonstrate at least two smaller reactors by 2025; INL is working with multiple companies and agencies that could reach that timeline.

“There’s a lot of interest today in very small nuclear systems today,” Wagner said. “Those are enabled at a much shorter time frame.”

There are also a number of things beyond 2025, Wagner added, including a goal of demonstrating two advanced reactors in a few partnerships within seven years. The community can expect an announcement from the U.S. Department of Energy about that in the next couple of weeks.

“That’s what motivated me to move here and what motivates me now,” Wagner said about demonstrating advanced reactors. “This is a really critical and exciting time, relative to U.S. leadership and nuclear and advanced nuclear energy.”

When asked, essentially, if he expects INL’s workforce to grow or shrink, Wagner said “certainly not to shrink,” but to expand.

“We are actively working on managing that growth,” he said. “That has kind of tracked with increased budget space in nuclear and otherwise. I anticipate continued growth.”

And, when it comes to the Idaho Falls and greater community, Wagner said his top priority is to continue getting to know community leaders; he has met with Idaho Falls’ mayor and other leaders before, but now his plan is to expand on that as well.

“The laboratory is a big part of this community,” Wagner said, “so you’ll see that reflected in my actions and works.”

Wagner has been with INL for the past four years, joining initially as the chief scientist at the Materials and Fuels Complex, then serving as the associate laboratory director of INL’s Nuclear Science & Technology directorate.

Upon coming to the 890-square-mile INL complex, and Idaho Falls for the first time, Wagner remembers being impressed with the vastness of the site. His first role as chief scientist at the Materials and Fuels Complex was about 40 minutes west of Idaho Falls.

This is one of the reasons INL is really well-positioned for its missions, Wagner said, and why it was selected in the first place to be considered for the country’s first Versatile Test Reactor.

“The experience that I think about as most memorable is just how vast this site is, then the comprehensive nature of the research capabilities … just the awe of all of that,” Wagner said. “Then I would say the people, getting to know the fantastic researchers at this laboratory, their passion … it’s across the laboratory; (that’s) probably my greatest memory so far.”

Other questions:

What about waste clean up, COVID-19, and the perception of nuclear energy?

Wagner said INL hopes to, eventually, indirectly use spent nuclear fuel in some of its machines, and some testing has been done to advance that. However, due to a current binding agreement around the site’s nuclear waste cleanup efforts, procuring the amount of nuclear waste necessary for those projects has been slowed.

Wagner explained this was due to the site not meeting certain “milestones” particularly around the cleanup efforts, so INL has not been able to bring in spent fuel to do research with.

“We did reach agreement with the state on setting conditions, largely related to operations,” Wagner said. “If (we are) not able to bring in quantities of spent fuel, that is a threat to our mission.”

When asked how close INL was to finishing its cleanup efforts, Wagner answered his understanding is early summer.

Will INL make it mandatory for employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The current answer to that, Wagner said, is no, and he cannot imagine anything that would make that answer change.

“While I’ll strongly encourage (taking) the vaccine, there’s no intention of making it mandatory,” he said.

He also said that while some projects did get delayed as operations slowed due to the coronavirus, including delays in supply chains, things have ramped back up, and, “fortunately our customers were very understanding.”

“We do have some concerns about the schedule going forward,” Wagner said. “At least now we know what we’re dealing with. So far, we are managing.”

Thoughts on NuScale’s long-term plan for Eastern Idaho?

Wagner is optimistic for NuScale’s 12-modular small reactor project, also in partnership with UAMPS, despite some opposition earlier this year. He believes, based on the plans to close fossil fuel plants and replace them with cleaner energy, they will find community support, in addition to the support they have already. The project proposal is so far successfully moving the approval process.

Wagner also said he believes the entire perception of nuclear energy is changing.

“Of course, it’s not unanimous,” Wagner said. “(But) we’ve seen a significant change in attitude, mostly driven by climate.”

How will this administration change affect the laboratory?

Wagner said this question comes up about every four to five years, and, while some adaptations do occur, the main missions around climate and its relation to nuclear energy, and other energy sources, and cybersecurity, those are often aligned with those of higher leadership teams. Nuclear energy, other topics and INL have received strong bipartisan support, Wagner said, and beneficial legislation has been passed.

“This laboratory is really well positioned,” Wagner said. “I expect we are well aligned with the incoming priorities of the incoming administration.”

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