A budget bill that is pending before the Senate would authorize $10 million for a pilot program at Idaho National Laboratory to convert some spent fuel into fuel for nuclear reactors.
The provision, which was added to the 2019 Energy and Water appropriations bill by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., would fund research to take spent naval fuel and convert it into fuel that could be used in advanced reactors.
Crapo said naval fuel is considered spent and sent out for storage when it still has about 80 percent of its fissile content. However, the startup cores for advanced reactors only need material that’s 20 percent fissile. The recycle and cleanup project would blend high-enriched uranium fuel to a lower level where it could be used in advanced nuclear reactor startup cores.
“The idea is to take this spent naval fuel and basically process it down to where it’s at 20 percent level rather than 80 percent,” Crapo said. “And (it) increases by four times the amount of fuel available for advanced nuclear reactor cores. And by increasing this source of fuel for advanced nuclear reactors, it reduces the amount of spent nuclear fuel that needs to go into storage.”
Crapo said the planned small modular reactors at the INL site west of Idaho Falls would be an example of the kind of project that could benefit from this project. Currently INL, NuScale Power and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems are working on a plan to build small modular reactors that is working its way through the federal regulatory approval process. Finalapprovals are expected in 2020.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the $44 billion funding bill in late May. It is awaiting consideration by the full Senate.
The U.S. Department of Energy is out of compliance with the 1995 Settlement Agreement with the state of Idaho that sets deadlines for waste cleanup and removal, and blocking new fuel shipments is the state’s only tool under the agreement to pressure compliance. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden did just this a few years ago, when the DOE missed a 2012 deadline to treat about 900,000 gallons of liquid radioactive waste.
However, that dispute likely won’t affect this proposal, should it make it into law. The U.S. Navy has fulfilled its obligations under the agreement and is allowed to bring the spent fuel in question into the state under an addendum the state and the Navy agreed to in 2008. In December 2016 the Navy announced plans for a new facility at INL to store warships’ nuclear waste.
“The Navy has proven to be a good partner and has diligently fulfilled its obligations under the 1995 Settlement Agreement,” Wasden said at the time. “I support the Navy’s efforts to upgrade the facilities at INL, which will provide greater protection for Idahoans and their resources.”
Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.