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Another Nuclear Plant for Idaho by Beatrice Brailsford

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During transient testing, nuclear fuel or other material such as cladding is subjected to short bursts of very intense, high power radiation. One result can be to see what will happen to the fuel or cladding during an accident. The Transient Test Reactor (TREAT) started operating at the Idaho National Laboratory in 1959. It was part of the safety program for fast breeder reactors such as INL’s Experimental Breeder Reactor II. It shut down in early 1994 because, according to the DOE, “there were no customers for the facility at that time.”

Now the DOE has issued an environmental assessment on resuming transient testing, either in New Mexico or Idaho. Refurbishing and operating TREAT in Idaho is the “preferred alternative,” in part because of “the remoteness of the INL.” Even if the tests themselves are conducted in New Mexico, preparing tests and analyzing results and handling nuclear waste (including spent fuel debris) would happen here.

But the reasons behind TREAT restart aren’t clear. Tellingly, in April the DOE asked itself – and then did not answer: “Are there specific, identified customers who are willing to pay to use transient testing capability? If so, who?”

True, in some analyses, the DOE makes passing mention of improving the fuel used in today’s reactors. But early efforts to develop more accident tolerant fuel seem to call for using currently operating research reactors. The DOE’s focus for TREAT is on far more distant prospects. For instance, much is made of a cooperative effort with France and Japan to develop sodium-cooled fast reactors. Such reactors have been around for decades but have never been extensively deployed because they are so much more dangerous and hard to operate than other designs. In a real reach, the “Mission Need Statement” for transient testing posits a research need for advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), even though the first generation of SMRs hasn’t even been designed.

Congress would eventually have to decide if it is prudent to spend upwards of $900 million to restart TREAT and operate it for 40 years. In doing so, Congress would do well to realistically consider nuclear power’s future. This spring, former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Peter Bradford predicted an “economics-driven US nuclear phase-out” by the late 2050s. That’s about the time the current proposal to bolster nuclear power would end.

The DOE is accepting comments on the current environmental assessment for the resumption of transient testing of nuclear fuels and materials (http://www.id.energy.gov/insideNEID/PDF/Draft%20RTT%20EA%2011-12-2013%20(Draft%20V1).pdf) through Friday, January 3, 2014. Comments can be submitted by mail to Chuck Ljungberg, 1955 Fremont Ave., mailstop 1216, Idaho Falls, Idaho, 83415 or by e-mail to rttea@id.doe.gov. To help you write your comments, additional DOE information and Snake River Alliance perspectives are available on our web site.

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