It allows a national laboratory to test small amounts of commercial spent nuclear fuel
In what looks like a ray of sunshine in the historically tense relationship between the Idaho National Laboratory and the State of Idaho, a new agreement expands the lab’s ability to conduct tests on commercial spent nuclear fuel in small quantities.
The objectives of the tests on about 900 pounds a year of commercial irradiated fuel will be to assess its reliability and to discover any previously unobserved characteristics of the fuel while it was in a commercial nuclear reactor.
According to the new agreement, the tests will support improvements to fuel reliability and develop a better understanding of how nuclear materials age. What’s significant about it is the strong support the lab is getting from Idaho’s governor.
“The INL has unique testing capabilities that are critical if we as a nation are serious about increasing the operating lives and improving the performance of existing reactors,” Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter said.
“My goal is to help build Idaho’s and INL’s research reputations, and this agreement better positions the lab to meet the growing technology development and demonstration needs of the nuclear industry.”
New role testing commercial spent fuel
Under the MOA, INL’s relationship with the commercial nuclear industry is clarified to allow the lab to:
* Identify and receive research quantities of irradiated commercial fuels worthy of post- irradiation examination at the Lab.
* Create a library limited to 10 kg total heavy metal that would allow for efficient re-examination of materials and measure improvements to fuel characteristics.
This agreement will enable the lab to accept small amounts of used commercial fuel from industry and other federal agencies and perform examinations that have historically been done outside the US.
The new testing activity on the back end of the fuel cycle could establish the basis for new R&D activities related to nuclear fuel fabrication on the front end of the cycle. It could lead to new missions and new facilities for the lab. Lessons learned from fuel performance are valuable to utilities and to fuel fabrication vendors.
To illustrate by analogy, at the end of a professional car race the mechanics pull the vehicle apart to see how well the engine performed during the run.
Lessons learned from that process result in faster cars that need fewer repairs during a race. Examples of items examined include wear-and-tear on parts, expected v. actual power, and so on.
Idaho anti-nuclear group’s reaction
The anti-nuclear Snake River Alliance (SRA) was not happy about the new arrangement. Liz Woodruff, a spokesperson for the SRA said it “erodes the integrity of the Batt Agreement.”
“It opens the door to a potential slippery slope to ship more spent commercial fuel to Idaho.”
Woodruff clarified that while her ground “does not have trust issues with the Department of Energy, “we are concerned about the lack of public input in the process that resulted in this decision.”
Amy Lientz, VP for Communications at the Idaho Lab, said in a statement to a Boise newspaper that the agreement does not increase the amount of used fuel allowed in state.
Lientz writes that the SRA’s claims are “misleading,” and adds that the the Batt Agreement already authorizes the lab to import small quantities of spent fuel for research purposes.
“In today’s agreement, commercial entities can now send used fuel in research quantities to Idaho as long as the amount coming into the state does not change what is specified in the Settlement agreement.”
R&D work scope
It is probably too early for the lab to name the commercial entities that will be sponsoring R&D at the site with its spent commercial fuel. As a practical matter, the fuel likely be five-to-ten years old having cooled off in wet storage after leaving the reactor .
One potential line of work will be failure analysis of the fuel. This type of assessment supports safety measures for current and future commercial nuclear reactors. The Idaho lab has a long history of work in the area of “post irradiation examination.”
Once the test procedures on the fuel are complete, the fuel could be “archived” in a “fuel library” for potential future research reference.
How much fuel is involved? Not much as it turns out.
Actually very little fuel by volume or weight is coming to the lab. Under the new agreement, no more than 400 kilograms (880 lbs) heavy metal content of commercial spent nuclear fuel can be received into the state in any calendar year. That equates to roughly 880 pounds of fissile material like uranium or plutonium, which are very dense metals.
A nuclear fuel assembly, including the metal parts holding the fuel, weighs between 300 Kg (BWR) and 600 Kg (PWR) or about 700-to-1,400 lbs. A 400 Kg bundle, as specified in the new Idaho agreement would be roughly equal to one spent fuel bundle from a boiling water reactor (BWR).
If the current arrangement lasted for the next 25 years, the equivalent of only 25 more spent fuel bundles could be brought to Idaho. By comparison, A BWR reactor, depending on size, can hold 300-to-900 fuel assemblies. So, 25 fuel assemblies represents a very small percentage of the fuel in a commercial reactor. An argument that the new Idaho agreement opens the door to a new and large inventory of spent fuel storage at the lab is not supported by the numbers.
Also, under the agreement, any commercial spent fuel that is allowed into the INL will be counted as part of the total amount of fuel allowed under the original Idaho Settlement Agreement. So this agreement will not result in a net increase in the total amount of spent fuel that is allowed to be stored in Idaho.
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