Environmental Defense Institute

 Home EDI Publications Information Resources  Contact   Donate 

Click or scroll down.
   Proposed New Reactors
   Nuclear Accident History at INL

Nuclear Facility Accident Risks at INL

From the billion curies at the Advanced Test Reactor in reactor and freshly stored fuel poised to contaminate air in a manner and magnitude similar to Chernobyl, to the stored transuranic waste at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex poised to contaminate air in a manner exceeding the 2014 WIPP plutonium release, to the soluble high level calcine waste storage and other spent fuel and high level waste at the Materials and Fuels Commplex that must be confined, the actual risks to the public and to the environment are rarely discussed.

Read about recent Department of Energy Occurrence reports for the Advanced Test Reactor below:

The Advanced Test Reactor airborne radiological release of materials inside and outside "confinement" have been understated, but at least stated. The additional scenario of an accident with fuel melt dislocation and, like Fukushima, an inability to access, retrieve or remediate the melted core, and like Fukushima, long term injection of water to attempt to provide core cooling water, poses an additional but unstated threat to groundwater.

The DOE accident guidance is quite accepting of very large radiological releases on the basis of an estimated 25 rem dose to the public. Such a release would yeild environmental contamination for many years, devastate local economies, cause serious and real health effects, though DOE would deny it's release was the cause.

Materials and Fuels Complex

The Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC), previously called Argonne National Laboratory-West (ANL-W) is located on the Department of Energy (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL) site. MFC historically operated the EBR-II fast reactor. MFC's plutonium inventory shows a total of 4,229 kg (4.229 metric tons) that includes ZPPR fuel (4,000 kg), Metal feedstock (200 kg) and other plutonium material (29 kg). That's enough for over 400 nuclear bombs.

Materials and Fuels Complex

"Concerns included discrepancies between the Secretary of Energy's plutonium inventory disclosure and that of ANL-W; exclusion of safeguards and security issues from the assessment; questions about nuclear weapons assemblies in the assessment scope; verification that ZPPR and other un-irradiated plutonium-bearing fuel were within scope; and adequacy of Departmental coordination of various disposition efforts, the environmental impact statement, and programmatic decisions involving fissile materials."(Source: 1995 Plutonium ES&H Vulnerability Assessment)

Two MFC facilities - the Fuel Manufacturing Facility (FMF) and the Fuel Conditioning Facility (FCF) - have the potential for consequences that could impact the public.

  • Fuel Manufacturing Facility (FMF, MFC-704). FMF was originally constructed for manufacturing fuels for EBR-II. Its current mission is fuel processing, research and development on new fuel fabrication methods and storage of nuclear materials.
  • Fuel Conditioning Facility (FCF, MFC-709). FCF consists of two hot cells for working with nuclear materials and handling, storage, and assembling and/or disassembling radioactive components. In addition to the hot cells, FCF has an equipment mockup area and areas where contaminated equipment can be decontaminated and repaired.

MFC stores high level waste from pyroprocessing of EBR-II fuel in its hot cell facilities and its 4-acre facility for buried cans of waste at the Radioactive Scrap and Waste facility. Some of this waste is slowly being processed into a waste form hoped to be accepted by a future high-level waste repository. Some of the RSWF waste will be moved to the new Replacement RH-LLW facility.

The first of two hoped for spent fuel shipments to INL are to be examined in MFC's facilities and involve pyroprocessing. According to an article in the Idaho Falls Post Register, the US may want to conduct nuclear fuel reprocessing but the research is tied to nuclear non-proliferation and national security. "We want to make sure we understand the technology so that we can understand what (foreign countries) are doing, "said INL's Todd Allen, March 13, 2015.

DOE is claiming to be performing research to address weapons material proliferation threats although MFC has actively shared its pyroprocessing technology (also known by other names such as electrorefining) with other countries, including the South Korea.

Some experts fear that pyroprocessing will allow the separation of plutonium virtually undetected. Pyroprocessing treats spent fuel by removing the extremely radioactive but relatively short-lived constituents, such as strontium and cesium, and storing these separately from the spent fuel. The remaining material, including the comparatively long-lived transuranic elements plutonium and other actinides, can then be burned in fast-neutron reactors or used in nuclear weapons. However, high level and spent fuel waste problems are not solved by operating fast reactors as determined by the Blue Ribbon Commission report.

Proposed New Reactors

Small Modular Reactors

There are numerous Small Modular Reactors being designed; so far none have been licensed or built. There is talk of building one at INL. SMRs are less than 300 megawatts and the hope is to offer shorter construction time tables, less up front financial risk, and economies from manufacturing in one location then transporting to the build site for final assembly. However, even Idaho's Line commission progress report in 2012 noted that SMRs economic viability is currently uncertain.

The Department of Energy has provided research money for SMRs and in 2012 began a program to provide licensing support. SMRs will be licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Of numerous designs, the improved safety of a single SMR is unlikely to compensate for the higher risk of multiple units, each capable of meltdown. SMRs will be susceptible to accidents, terrorist acts, and do not address the problem spent fuel storage problem.

NuScale and Energy Northwest, formerly known as Washington Public Power Supply System, famous for its unfinished reactor at Hanford, hope to begin to build a 100 MW SMR prototype in the Idaho National Laboratory by 2020 and have it operating in 2023. Another SMR promotor, mPower America plans to build an SMR at TVA's Clinch River Site.

Traveling Wave Reactor

Research is being conducted for Bill Gates Terrapower Traveling wave reactor. The hype is impressive. The realities are that this fast reactor concept is unlikely to overcome the huge hurdles that billions of dollars spent worldwide have not.

TREAT Reactor Restart

The transient reactor test facility (TREAT) reactor is being refurbished for resumption of nuclear fuels testing at INL. The reactor's design allows testing materials to mimic accident conditions involving sodium-cooled systems. TREAT was first operated in 1959 and last operated in 1994.

Nuclear Accident History at INL