The Idaho National Laboratory celebrated the completion of a major project to transfer spent nuclear fuel from wet storage to dry storage on Tuesday.
The achievement was first announced by the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy on March 22.
Gov. Brad Little, Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador, Idaho National Laboratory Director John Wagner and other officials spoke to approximately 400 employees and community leaders gathered to commemorate the milestone at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC).
“We’re here to celebrate the completion of a settlement agreement commitment of wet-transfer of spent nuclear fuel on the site,” Wagner said. “It’s March 28th. The deadline was December 31st of this year, so we’re nine months ahead of schedule. It takes a lot of people over decades to attain this accomplishment.”
“The Department of Energy has, despite challenges and setbacks, worked hard to its commitment to address waste at the site,” Little said. “Today, cleanup is a success story — not only for the INL, but for the entire DOE complex.”
Transferring all spent nuclear fuel from wet storage to dry storage was a key provision of the 1995 Settlement Agreement negotiated between the state of Idaho, the Department of Energy, and the U.S. Navy.
“It takes hundreds of people to accomplish a task decades in the making, a lot of hard work,” said Ty Blackford, Idaho Environmental Coalition president. “It includes engineers, operators, maintenance, craft, (and) fabrication personnel. The list goes on and on and on. These are not 9-to-5 jobs. The jobs go seven days a week, 365 days a year to make sure that these jobs can (be completed).”
Since 2021, the Idaho Environmental Coalition has served as the contractor overseeing the 10-year, $6.4 billion contract for cleanup work at the site, its website states.
Previously, the spent fuel was stored underwater in six pools at INTEC that held a combined 3 million gallons of water, according to an Idaho Environmental Coalition fact sheet. The water shielded workers from radiation.
“The now-empty nuclear fuel storage basin at INTEC was the world’s largest,” an Office of Environmental Management news release said.
As part of the transfer, “crews safely retrieved, handled, repackaged, shipped and placed in dry storage thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods — some dating back to the early days of the Cold War,” a video at the start of the event said.
Labrador acknowledged this reality and stated that Idaho needs to have serious discussions about interim storage.
“Of course, we have challenges ahead such as working with Congress to establish a permanent national geologic repository,” he said. “But in the meantime, I think we really should take note, and we should be ready to have a serious conversation about interim storage. Idaho needs to lead this conversation, and we need to think about how we can have a bigger role in that conversation.”
For now, secure in dry storage, “the spent nuclear fuel is in a safer, more secure configuration with additional benefits to the Snake River Plain Aquifer, Idaho’s greatest natural resource,” the video said.
Little highlighted the importance of removing the fuel from wet storage to better protect the Snake River Plain Aquifer. The aquifer provides drinking water for 300,000 residents in eastern Idaho, according to a May 2005 Oversight Monitor newsletter on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website. The underground aquifer starts near Ashton and runs past Twin Falls. It flows directly underneath the Idaho National Laboratory.
The project also plays a critical role in the development of nuclear fuel to power future advanced reactors as the spent fuel is being treated to produce high-assay low enriched uranium source material that can provide an adequate fuel supply for advanced reactors that are “smaller, more flexible and less expensive to build and operate,” the Office of Nuclear Energy website said.
Approximately 1,800 employees work for the Idaho Environmental Coalition, including about 600 employees who participated in this project, said William Kirby, the coalition’s senior director for liquid waste and fuels.
Other milestones still remain to be met.
The Idaho Settlement Agreement states that the “Department of Energy shall remove all spent fuel, including naval spent fuel and Three Mile Island spent fuel from Idaho by January 1, 2035.”
But in the interim, site officials are proud of the work of their employees in keeping the Department of Energy’s commitment to Idaho to safely transfer all spent nuclear fuel from wet-to-dry storage.
“The Idaho Cleanup Project contractor team, the Idaho Environmental Coalition, is the cornerstone of this achievement — building on a long history of success in Idaho,” said Connie Flohr, manager of the Idaho Cleanup Project. “We’re grateful for the support of the Naval Reactors team and the Idaho National Laboratory for their collaboration on this achievement — especially in the last few months where we really had to do some innovative things to make sure that we’d be able to get these last few retrievals out of there.”