Sunday, January 30, 2011

Andrus blasts Idaho spent fuel R&D plan

Decades of distrust drive the former governor’s heated rhetoric

cecil andrusCecil Andrus (right) is a big man, politically and physically, which means that when he stands up and starts shouting a lot of people pay attention. The former Idaho governor did just that earlier this month in opposition to a plan by the Department of Energy to bring 400 kg (880 lbs) a year of spent nuclear fuel to the Idaho National Laboratory for R&D purposes.

If you want to talk about throwing one's weight around, Andrus more-or-less exaggerated the scope of the threat in his pubic statements, and an OP ED in the Idaho Statesmen, but that isn’t all he got wrong in his heated rhetoric opposing the new R&D plan.

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. Bear in mind any fuel shipped to Idaho will have left the reactor in which it was used at least five years earlier.

What’s significant about the new agreement is the strong support the lab is getting from Idaho’s current governor Butch Otter, who served at Lt. Governor under Andrus for eight years. Andrus is a liberal democrat and Otter is a libertarian republican. Otter put his own stamp on moving nuclear waste cleanup ahead in Idaho in 2008.

Where’s the beef?

Given the history of a federal consent decree and the significant progress cleaning up the cold war legacy nuclear waste at the Idaho lab, it is reasonable to ask what is the core of the complaint from former Gov Andrus? It can’t be that the consent decree has been overturned or that the spent fuel limits in the Batt Agreement will be breached by the new arrangement. Neither charge is true.

John_GrossenbacherIn an extraordinary OP ED published in the Idaho Statesmen, John Grossenbacher, (left) Director of the Idaho National Laboratory, wrote;

“The agreement does not authorize any additional quantity of used nuclear fuel or radioactive waste to be brought into Idaho beyond that which is already authorized by the 1995 Settlement Agreement. . . . Contrary to what Gov. Andrus said, the settlement agreement has not been abandoned.”

He adds this salient point.

“Andrus argued that the new agreement provides a path for “waste” to be “dumped” in Idaho. That argument is neither reasonable nor credible. The agreement clearly states that there is a restriction on how much used fuel can come to Idaho, and it’s a very small quantity. It will be carefully selected based on its high research value. We will not be receiving any nuclear waste at INL. “

wheresthebeffSo what is the complaint? As the lady says, “where’s the beef?” At the heart of things is the fact that Andrus has lifelong trust issues with the Department of Energy. In his own OP ED in the Idaho Statements, Andrus wrote;

“Idaho has learned the hard way that DOE, under Democratic and Republican administrations, cannot be trusted when it comes to the incredibly complicated and serious business of nuclear waste storage. “

The fact is that it was Idaho Gov. Phil Batt who closed the deal in 1995 to cleanup the waste and put a deadline on removing spent fuel from Idaho. He successfully defended the agreement in against an ill-conceived state wide referendum that tried to overturn it.

Butch Otter signed a new agreement in 2008 with the Department of Energy resolving a long-standing, and bitterly contested, dispute over “how clean is clean” in terms of removing waste from the Arco desert. The question that comes to mind is whether Andrus defending the environment in Idaho or his place in its history?

History of the waste agreement and the reason for it

Idaho waste dumping 1969 Readers are reminded that in the late 1980s, when he was in office, then Gov. Andrus courageously threatened to block waste shipments at the state’s borders. Idaho had been used for decades as an uncontrolled dumping ground for nuclear waste from the Rocky Flats bomb factory in Denver.

When the waste shipments started in the 1950s, the thought was that no one would care what happened to radioactive waste dumped in an arid desert 50 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID. The radioactive waste drums, as shown in this 1969 photo, were simply unloaded into pits and trenches at the remote desert site.

Later, it would be discovered that plutonium particles had migrated more than 200 feet from the surface toward the huge freshwater aquifer under the Snake River plain. The water from that underground source irrigates Idaho’s world famous potato crop and re-emerges to flow into the Snake River at Hagerman, ID. Farmers living in Twin Falls, ID, fueled a statewide political backlash fed by claims from the Snake River Alliance that radioactivity from the waste dump would french-fry the potato crop right on the vine.

The spent nuclear fuel at the INL has come from several sources, including the research reactors that have operated at the INL over the past fifty years. Other sources include;

  • DOE reactors in other states.
  • Research reactors that the United States helped support in other countries over the past 25 years.
  • Reactors operated on submarines and aircraft carriers in the nuclear navy.
  • Commercial nuclear power plant—such as the damaged fuel and core debris from the Three Mile Island Unit.

The inventory of spent nuclear fuel at INL increases each year due to new shipments to the INL. This increase will continue until a permanent solution, such as reprocessing, and a repository opens for disposal of high level waste from spent fuel.

Numbers count

math symbolsLike the exaggerated claims of the Snake River Alliance long ago, Governor Andrus has a problem in the current era getting the facts straight. 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.

The agreement specifies that 400 kg, or roughly 880 pounds, of fissile material like uranium or plutonium, which are very dense metals, can be brought into Idaho. 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 assembly 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 for testing. 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. The argument by Andrus that the new Idaho agreement opens the door to getting a new and large inventory of spent fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors 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 1995 Idaho Settlement Agreement. So this new spent fuel agreement will not result in a net increase in the total amount of spent fuel that is allowed to be stored in Idaho.

Another voice weigh in

MikeSimpsonThe issue of getting the numbers right is a key point in an OP ED in the Idaho Statesmen written by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson. (right) He writes’

“I am disappointed in his opposition to this sensible agreement and even more disappointed that he is using outdated and unfounded arguments to oppose it.”

Then he gets to the heart of the reason why the Department of Energy wants the lab to conduct R&D evaluations of the spent fuel.

“Governor Andrus also laments that the agreement comes with no assurance of new jobs or new investments at the Laboratory. This statement is misleading at best . . . INL has grown from a business volume of roughly $500 million a year to over $1 billion a year. Employment at INL has grown by hundreds of jobs, and some of the most difficult cleanup efforts have been tackled or are in the process of being tackled.”

The future of the deal

Andrus doesn’t have a vote in deciding whether the spent fuel agreement will be executed over time. If he challenges the deal, via litigation, as a violation of the consent decree, the Department of Energy should be able to defend it because it does not exceed the volume allowed under the Batt Agreement.

In terms of public policy implications, Lab Director Grossenbacher gets the last word. He writes:

nuclear power 5“If, as Andrus suggests, we can never again trust DOE to discharge its important roles and responsibilities, then nuclear energy technology research and use are severely impaired. Meanwhile, countries like France, Japan, Korea, China and India will grab our weak hold on leadership in this technology and pass us by with what I believe will be substantial benefits to their citizens.”

Readers are reminded that Grossenbacher is well-versed in the concept of energy as a key factor in national security. He had a distinguished career with the U.S. Navy, achieving the rank of Vice Admiral and Commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces.

Back to the land not an option

So the bottom line is either you lead or get out of the way. The surprise in all the sound and fury is that Andrus, who was a progressive while in office, turns out to be the radical conservative out of office. If he were to be successful in blocking the new spent fuel agreement, he could be seen as seeking to return the State of Idaho to an era of timber, mining, and agriculture as the mainstays of the economy.

You don’t need a lot of energy if your paradigm is to get off the grid. If you intend to live well in the 21st century, you are going to need all the energy you can get.

Prior coverage on this blog

Video - Where's the beef?

In the 1980s, a few years before Cecil Andrus began his protests about the uncontrolled dumping of nuclear waste in Idaho, a ground breaking TV commercial was aired which became a legend.

The term "where's the beef" entered the English language as an idiomatic phrase for "what is the significance of your statement?" Here’s the original video.

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Mister Fweem said...


Bravo. I think you're about the only one out there who has actually read and studied this agreement to see what's really in it. The other commentaries I've read simply can't get past the wharrrrgarbl of spent fuel coming to Idaho.

I've seen firsthand the cleanup efforts going on at INL, and know the people doing it. They're working very hard to meet the letter and spirit of Batt's agreement. Andrus and others treating DOE in such a dismissive fashion denegrates the successful cleanup work that's ongoing at the INL, and ignores the benefits of the research to be done with the spent fuel.

Anonymous said...

Do you know if it is possible for GE to re-enrich spent nuclear fuel using the new laser enrichment process.

djysrv said...

No. The new laser enrichment process will only deal with UF6 as a gas separating U235 from U238 to produce enriched uranium in UF6 to 3-5% U235.

Anonymous said...

Dan this is probably getting of track from your blog, but do you see any way the tech could be used to help clean up nuclear waste.

Do you believe that GE will be successful in commercialising the tech

thank you for your response.

djysrv said...

GE has a separate project called the PRISM reactor which they hope will lead to commercial success in this area. See my report at this URL from June 2009.

Anonymous said...

Dan I have a couple more questions from Australia, if you could help us out with this it would be great thanks mate!

can you ask him about the uranium still left in the drums of UF6 as nuclear waste sitting around all over the older enrichment plants rotting away, does this UF6 have to be retreated before they can recover any uranium still left in it when treated in the GLE process?

Did he listen to Steven Chu's speech the other night where he mentioned that they can now use the Uranium rods in a reactor for nearly twice as long as they used to before they had to be removed and replaced? does this possibly mean that the Uranium is enriched more than the required 5% to say six or seven percent to achieve this or do they do something else? and if so can the GLE process deliver those sorts of numbers if required?

djysrv said...

USEC is planning to re-enrich UF6 tails to produce ordinary uranium for sale on the open market, See my report for Fuel Cycle Week at this URL.

DocForesight said...

I think describing Andrus as an ignorant, disingenuous radical would be more accurate. Ignorant because he didn't know the facts and disingenuous because he pretended to know them - and spoke from a position of authority, as a former governor.

Neither of those traits would correctly be attributed to his conservative contemporary opponents.