On August 11, 2017, the Los Angeles Times revealed that, without significant reform, the Department of Energy (DOE) will miss its 2035 deadline for getting all its spent fuel out of Idaho. The LA Times article is based on a report by Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a longtime Alliance ally. DOE documents he got through the Freedom of Information Act show DOE is knowingly making the situation even worse while leaving the public and the State of Idaho in the dark.
The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has 26 metric tons of sodium-bonded spent nuclear fuel left over from operating the Experimental Breeder Reactor II. It contains metallic sodium, which reacts violently with both air and water. DOE argues that the fuel can’t be put in a geologic repository unless the sodium is removed.
INL chose to remove the sodium through pyroprocessing, a technology that poses a proliferation threat because it can separate nuclear bomb ingredients out of spent fuel. Despite opposition from the Alliance, UCS, and other environmental and peace groups, INL started pyroprocessing in 2000.
As a waste management effort, it has been a disaster right from the start.
Early estimates pegged 2013 as the completion date for treating the sodium-bonded spent fuel. But INL admitted in an internal document that it wouldn’t even hit 2035, the deadline in the Nuclear Waste Settlement Agreement. INL’s admission included a comment that “according to [name redacted] EBR-II elements are not subject to the SA [Settlement Agreement].”
That is simply not true.
The FOIAed documents reveal even more damning information. Pyroprocessing spent fuel creates high-level waste, and 2035 is also the deadline for all high-level waste to be ready to leave Idaho. That’s one of the reasons everyone has been so worried about the ongoing problems treating the liquid waste in INL’s buried tanks.
Some of pyroprocessing’s high-level waste is in a ceramic form. But the equipment to make the ceramic has been moved to make room for pyroprocessing research for South Korea. The proposed research would use spent fuel from a nuclear power plant in Byron, Illinois.
If the State of Idaho waives its ban on commercial spent fuel and allows in the Byron fuel, it will also impede efforts to get high-level waste ready to leave Idaho.
The State must protect the best interests of Idahoans and demand that DOE act in good faith and meet its commitments to us. We must have a workable path forward for INL’s sodium-bonded fuel and successful treatment of high-level waste.