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Nuclear Navy’s Final Port of Call

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Starting in 1957, every scrap of spent fuel from the nuclear Navy has come to Idaho. The nuclear Navy plans to continue to send its spent fuel to the Idaho National Laboratory for the foreseeable future. The nuclear Navy is now proposing to build a new facility at INL to receive, handle, chop up if desired, package, and store its spent fuel until at least 2060. The Department of Energy will be hold public meetings on the proposal in Idaho Falls (Tuesday, August 4), Pocatello (Wednesday, August 5), and Twin Falls (Thursday, August 6). Here’s some background so you can comment in person or in writing on the DOE’s environmental analysis for the new facility.

The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program’s first reactor began operating in March 1953 in the middle of the Arco Desert. It simulated crossing the Atlantic, leaking radiation along the way, and the nuclear Navy was born. Months later, on January 21, 1954, the nuclear Navy launched the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine.

By 1957, INL became not just the birthplace of the nuclear Navy, but its final port of call. Every scrap of spent nuclear fuel produced by the US fleet ends up at INL’s Naval Reactors Facility. (There are no reactors at the NRF. Just waste.) Until the Department of Energy abandoned reprocessing in the early 1990s, INL dissolved the nuclear Navy spent fuel in acid to “recover” its highly-enriched uranium (HEU) so it could be made into fresh fuel at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and used in the weapons production reactors at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. But a significant portion of the reprocessed HEU was never used.

Train Shipment Nuclear Waste in Idaho

Every scrap of nuclear Navy waste comes to Idaho…still.

Today, there are about 31 metric tons of nuclear Navy spent nuclear fuel at INL, and more accumulates every year. The 1995 Settlement Agreement allows a running average of 20 shipments of spent fuel a year from the nuclear Navy, and the State of Idaho cannot stop those shipments for cause, as it can with shipments from the Department of Energy. A 2008 Addendum to the 1995 Agreement was negotiated without disclosure to or input from the people of Idaho. It requires that the nuclear Navy ship out of Idaho most of its spent fuel by 2035, but it can continue to bring in more spent fuel after that as long as its stockpile is no more than nine metric tons. Since the Settlement Agreement was signed, the nuclear Navy has brought in about 20 metric tons of spent fuel, though the pace may increase now that the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise has been retired and is being defueled.

What happens with the spent fuel once it comes to Idaho? When the nuclear Navy’s spent nuclear fuel first arrives, it’s often stored in a water pool, which helps cool the intensely radioactive spent fuel and protects people from its radiation. In the draft environmental impact statement for the new facility, the nuclear Navy says 10 to 20 percent of the fuel might undergo “detailed examination,” a remarkably inexact quantity. “Detailed examination” is the most frequently cited rationale for bringing naval spent nuclear fuel to Idaho to begin with. “Detailed examination” requires that the fuel be resized, or chopped up, in the proposed facility, though the examination itself wouldn’t happen there; it’s conducted in a decades-old building nearby. The original “new facility alternative” in the draft EIS was for two new buildings, one for handling and storage and the other for detailed examination. To save money, the nuclear Navy has put off the new examination facility, despite its advertised central role.

After the “detailed examination,” the fuel would be sent back to the proposed facility to be repackaged for “interim” storage. The work done at NRF produces waste that is radioactive enough that it must be handled remotely with machines, not human hands. INL’s nuclear Navy and nuclear power research programs estimate they will produce enough of this very radioactive waste to fill a 2-car garage each year for the next 50. It will be permanently disposed of above the Snake River Aquifer.

People can and should submit comments on the “Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Recapitalization of Infrastructure Supporting Naval Spent Nuclear Fuel Handling.”

  • Why Idaho? Why only Idaho? The nuclear Navy’s history at INL is not, in and of itself, an adequate justification for continuing to ship spent nuclear fuel to Idaho. In the current analysis, the nuclear Navy cites a decision based on a programmatic study from 1995. It does not cite its own studies from that period that concluded spent nuclear fuel could be stored safely at any one of its nuclear-capable shipyards.
  • Where to next? The draft EIS consistently says that the spent fuel coming in will go to a repository or a consolidated storage site as soon as one is available. But that misses the point. INL is the consolidated storage site for nuclear Navy spent fuel and will be for the foreseeable future.

You can download the draft EIS at www.ecfrecapitalization.us

You can comment in person on the plan at DOE public meetings (6 – 9 pm)

  • Tuesday, August 4, Residence Inn, Idaho Falls
  • Wednesday, August 5, Red Lion Hotel, Pocatello
  • Thursday, August 6, La Quinta Inn, Twin Falls

You can send written comments to

Erik Anderson
Department of Navy
Naval Sea Systems Command
1240 Isaac Hull Avenue, SC
Stop 8036
Washington Navy Yard, DC 20376-8036

or email at

ecfrecapitalization@unnpp.gov

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