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Idaho National Laboratory


The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was built in 1949 on land that had been used during WWII as a gunnery range by the US Navy.  It covers 890 square miles (about 2/3 the area of Rhode Island) of southern Idaho’s high desert plain. Beneath that plain lies the Snake River Aquifer, the second largest unified aquifer on the North American continent.  After the aquifer flows beneath the Site, it continues westward, providing water for the Magic Valley, one of the state’s richest agricultural regions with a growing population and diversifying economy.

The INL has had four primary functions within the Department of Energy complex:

  1. Reactor development and operator training for the nuclear navy
  2. Ongoing nuclear waste storage and disposal
  3. Materials production for the US nuclear weapons complex
  4. Reactor research.
  5. Accidental and intentional pollution from these four activities has led to a fifth — environmental cleanup—and INL was named a Superfund site in 1989.

Current attempts to jump start nuclear power may restart the production-pollution cycle at INL. To avert this will require the kind of public opposition that stopped the construction of three nuclear weapons plants and a plutonium incinerator at the Site.

Reactor development and operator training for the nuclear navy: The prototype for the reactor used in the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, was tested right in the middle of the Arco Desert. A total of four nuclear navy prototypes were built at INL and were used to train thousands of navy personnel. Many of this country’s most entrenched nuclear proponents came up through the nuclear navy, serving “aboard ship” in Idaho. Today , there are no reactors at the Naval Reactors Facility, though INL remains the nuclear navy’s final port of call: all irradiated, or “spent,” fuel from naval vessels continues to come to Idaho. All planned cleanup at the NRF is complete.

Ongoing nuclear waste storage and disposal: INL currently stores 308 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. It has come from all over: the nuclear Navy, domestic and foreign research reactors, and commercial nuclear reactors (including the core debris from Three Mile Island). Though the 1995 Settlement Agreement bans the importation of commercial spent fuel, the DOE, INL’s contractor, and some supporters in eastern Idaho are pressing to open the state’s doors to commercial spent fuel. Nuclear waste from INL and other DOE facilities, notably the plutonium trigger factory at Rocky Flats, CO, is stored or has been disposed of at the Site. Millions of cubic feet of radioactive waste has in turn contaminated tens of millions of cubic feet of soil and the Snake River Aquifer itself. One of the most environmentally damaging practices was burial in unlined pits. Throughout its operating history, Rocky Flats sent hundreds of thousands of barrels, cardboard boxes, and wooden crates of plutonium-contaminated waste to Idaho. (Colorado had strict disposal limits for such dangerous material.) Until 1970 the plutonium-contaminated waste was buried in unlined pits and trenches, and radioactive and substantial chemical pollution from the burial grounds has reached the aquifer. Other material that continues to be buried there includes parts from INL’s own reactors, parts of the irradiated fuel assemblies from the nuclear navy, and the sludge from the Site’s most contaminated spent fuel storage pool. Plutonium-contaminated waste sent from Rocky Flats after 1970 is stored above ground. INL has an ambitious program to exhume the plutonium-contaminated waste buried before 1970 and to stabilize and repackage the waste that was stored above ground after 1970. More than 40,000 cubic meters of the plutonium waste was sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico until it was shut by a fire and a contamination leak in 2016. WIPP may reopen, but even if things go well, its operations will be limited for several years. In the meantime, INL continues to stabilize and isolate its plutonium-contaminated waste to protect the Snake River Aquifer.

Materials production for the US nuclear weapons complex: Reprocessing is the must-take step between a nuclear reactor and a nuclear bomb, and the US started reprocessing during the Manhattan Project to remove plutonium from irradiated reactor fuel. At INL, spent fuel, much of it from the nuclear navy, was reprocessed by dissolving it in heated, liquid acid to extract the highly-enriched uranium. The HEU was then shipped to Oak Ridge, TN, where it was made into driver fuel for nuclear bomb production reactors in South Carolina. Millions of gallons of highly radioactive liquid remained in Idaho. Much of the liquid was calcined, or dried; more than 4,000 cubic meters of calcine are stored in stainless steel and concrete bins. Before it was dried, the waste was stored in eleven 300,000-gallon buried tanks. The tanks themselves did not leak, but the piping around them has, causing substantial soil pollution at the tank farm. Some of the liquid waste, about 900,000 gallons, was never calcined. The DOE intended to abandon some of it in the tanks at INL and much more in tanks in Washington and South Carolina. A court challenge by the Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and the Yakama Nation forced improvements in that plan and ultimately led to cleaner tanks in Idaho. Almost all of the 900,000 gallons was to have been removed from the tanks and dried by the end of 2012 in a facility called the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit. Unfortunately, the IWTU has not yet successfully completed a single test run using non-radioactive, surrogate waste, and its price tag is now nearing $1 billion. In addition to the tanked waste, billions of gallons of radioactive and chemically hazardous liquid waste from reprocessing were injected directly into the aquifer until public pressure, led by the Alliance, halted that practice in the mid-1980s. The first President Bush formally stopped reprocessing in 1992. Until then, the reprocessing plant was the single largest air polluter at INL.

Reactor research: Reactor research was the driving force behind the establishment of the National Reactor Testing Station, as INL was first known. Including the nuclear navy’s reactors, a total of 52 reactors have been built at INL, the largest concentration anywhere in the world. INL’s reactor “fleet” included two breeder reactors (designed to produce significant amounts of plutonium), a reactor that supported a misguided attempt to develop a nuclear airplane, and the SL-1, an army reactor that exploded and killed three operators. The SL-1 explosion was accidental; other reactor explosions were intentional. The Advanced Test Reactor began operating on July 2, 1967, and continues to produce medical isotopes and irradiate test material. As nuclear power wanes around the globe, 21st century nuclear research centers on what to do with its deadly legacy – spent nuclear fuel.


Updated June 2016