Have you ever wondered how a force strong enough to destroy cities and kill thousands of people can be altered to provide mankind with a nearly unending source of clean, reliable and economical power?
Last month I took advantage of an opportunity to visit the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) at Idaho Falls to see first-hand what that premier nuclear research center is doing – actually has been doing since it started out as the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s National Reactor Testing Station in 1949.
Today, the facility, part of the U.S. Dept. of Energy, has grown into a campus covering 800 square miles and employing 4,000 scientists, engineers and support personnel dedicated to research, development and testing of nuclear material used in applications ranging from medicine to national defense.
Sandy Birk gave our tour group an introduction to INL and told us how the laboratory strives to remain a world leader in nuclear research. She said that in addition to being funded by the DOE, work for the Dept. of Defense, private businesses and foreign entities help pay the bills.
Our tour guide, Ryan Weeks, a veritable fount of information, tried to make simple the complicated activities at INL during the eight hours we wound our way through a variety of unclassified work spaces.
We didn’t get to see where they do work on nuclear power projects for the U.S. Navy but our guide explained how submarines and aircraft carriers are so much more efficient with nuclear propulsion. For instance, a submarine launched today with a 30-year life expectancy will never have to refuel; and will even have power left in its reactors when it is deactivated.
Of course, safety is a main concern and uppermost in the minds of people at INL. Weeks told us that the 4,000 people employed at INL are in less danger from radiation than an x-ray technician at your average hospital.
One of the highlights of the tour was EBR I and II, experimental breeder reactors that turned uranium into electricity. EBR I, in 1951, was the first power plant in the world to successfully turn atomic energy into usable electricity. Its successor, EBR II took over in 1964, using 99 percent of its available energy and sometimes producing more energy than it used. It ran until political and budget issues shut it down in 1994.
Three well-known mishaps help fuel the fear of nuclear power and they were all attributed to human error: Three-Mile Island, 1979 in Pennsylvania, operators failed to recognize a cooling problem; Chernobyl, 1986 in the old USSR, human error during a late-night safety check, and Fukushima, 2011 in Japan, operator had failed to meet basic safety requirements.
One issue not mentioned during the INL visit was the unsafe method of storing spent nuclear material. Much of it is stored above ground at the reactor sites and that was a major part of the problem in the three mishaps mentioned above.
My visit to INL was arranged by a friend from Sparks, Gary Duarte, who is director of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation and a long-time proponent of the uncompleted facility at Yucca Mountain. He arranged for four of us from Nevada and four others from Idaho to take the tour.
Mr. Duarte said bridging the gap between the possibilities for nuclear energy and public ignorance is very important and tours of INL facilities can help do that.
Someone else who has been instrumental in informing the public is Churchill County High School chemistry teacher Steve Johnson. He has taken his advanced placement chemistry classes to INL for several years. Sadly, he won’t be going next year though. The school has dropped the advanced placement chemistry class.
Mr. Duarte says twisted facts and ungrounded fears have been a huge impediment to advances in nuclear energy and the safe storage of used fuel.
One of the fears stated by politicians and casino owners in Las Vegas, 90 miles away from Yucca, is the anticipated transportation of nuclear material through communities. It is never mentioned, though, that this has been going on in various parts of the country for the past 66 years without a single reported mishap.
And then there’s the money. States where spent nuclear material is stored unsafely would gladly pay Nevada for space at Yucca. The reprocessing possibilities could spin off billions of dollars and provide thousands of high-tech, high-paying jobs.
If you would like to tour INL yourselves, tours can be arranged by emailing email@example.com, or if you are planning to be in the Idaho Falls area, drop-ins can sometimes join scheduled tours. Call Shelly Norman at 208-526-3664 for that possibility.
Jim Falk is a Fallon resident. Comments are of the author.