The Idaho National Lab created a ‘wonder fuel.’ Now, it’s radioactive waste that won’t go away

In the early days of atomic energy, the federal government powered up an experimental reactor in Idaho with an ambitious goal: create a “wonder fuel” for the nation.

The reactor was one of the nation’s first “breeder” reactors — designed to make its own new plutonium fuel while it generated electricity, solving what scientists at the time thought was a looming shortage of uranium for power plants and nuclear weapons.

It went into operation in 1964 and kept the lights burning at the sprawling national laboratory for three decades.

But enthusiasm eventually waned for the breeder reactor program owing to safety concerns, high costs and an adequate supply of uranium.

Today, its only legacy is 26 metric tons of highly radioactive waste. What to do with that spent fuel is causing the federal government deepening political, technical, legal and financial headaches.

The reactor was shut down in 1994. Under a legal settlement with Idaho regulators the next year, the Department of Energy pledged to have the waste treated and ready to transport out of the state by 2035.

The chances of that happening now appear slim. A special treatment plant is having so many problems and delays that it could take many decades past the deadline to finish the job.

“The process doesn’t work,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has documented the problems in a new report. “It turned out to be harder to execute and less reliable than they promised.”

The delays have also fueled a massive increase in costs, which were originally estimated at about $500 million but at the current cleanup rate would hit $1 billion, Lyman said.

The waste is one of many unusual radioactive concoctions that came out of federal weapons and civilian power research programs and now require complex technologies to treat.

Many of the cleanup efforts, like the one in Idaho, are years or even…

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