Friday, April 29, 2011

INL reactors can withstand an earthquake


Japan's nuclear crisis has communities around the world scrutinizing nearby nuclear facilities. Idaho National Laboratory welcomes a public dialogue about its nuclear mission and emergency preparedness. Lab leaders will team with state, tribal and local officials and community groups to hold open houses in Idaho communities this spring. We hope you'll attend an open house or public tour. (More info is at In the meantime, here's some fuel for discussion.

First and foremost, we want Idahoans to feel confident that INL's nuclear facilities do not threaten public health and safety. The Department of Energy's Idaho site sits on the Eastern Snake River Plain, which is seismically quiet compared to the surrounding mountains. Nevertheless, INL's advanced test reactor emergency systems are designed to withstand very large postulated ground accelerations—nearly 10 times what the site felt during the roughly 7.0-magnitude Mount Borah earthquake in 1983. During that quake, the reactor safely shut down exactly as it was designed to do.

Redundant and diverse power and water supplies ensure reactor safety under routine and abnormal circumstances. If power is lost, multiple seismically stable backup power systems and water reserves can keep coolant flowing to the reactor long enough to keep it safe. The reactor requires less than an hour of forced cooling to maintain safety after shutdown.

Unlike commercial power reactors built to make lots of heat to turn a turbine, the advance test reactor is designed to expose test materials to large quantities of neutrons. It contains far less nuclear fuel than a power reactor—its entire core weighs less than one fuel element in a typical commercial reactor. The fuel doesn't get nearly as hot, and it cools faster.

The Department of Energy maintains an extensive, extremely sensitive radiation-monitoring network around INL. Air monitoring devices are checked continually and any elevated readings would be rapidly reported to the public. Quarterly and annual summaries are available for public review.

Environmental standards that were the norm in the early days of the site are no longer acceptable, and we understand that past practices impacted public trust. We're committed to winning it back.

Radioactively contaminated materials buried in Idaho are being exhumed, characterized, repackaged and shipped to the licensed disposal facility in New Mexico faster than anywhere else in the DOE complex. These materials will leave Idaho as early as 2015, three years ahead of the Idaho settlement agreement schedule. Our cleanup contractors have done an impressive job staying on schedule and significantly under budget.

Eleven of 15 liquid waste tanks have been emptied, cleaned and grouted. The remaining liquid stored in robust stainless steel tanks will be converted to a dry granular solid by the end of 2012 and safely stored above ground in containers that can isolate it from the environment.

Used fuel is safely stored in two pools. Both are built to withstand severe earthquakes estimated to occur about once every 10,000 years. Plus, the pools contain many volumes of surplus water to help ensure that fuel stays covered in the extremely unlikely event of a loss of power.

We take the safety and security of INL facilities seriously because the lab's mission is serious. INL leads the nation's nuclear energy research efforts by supporting university nuclear programs, current commercial U.S. reactors, and development of advanced reactor materials and designs. This work helps improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear power, the nation's largest source of emission-free electricity. And because energy security underlies the nation's economic competitiveness, the continued safe and efficient production of nuclear energy should be important to Idahoans and Americans alike.

Rick Provencher is manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho Operations Office.

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