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Posted on on June 4th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (

Dr. Harold S. Blackman of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), is Director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) which is a main National Energy Center supporting the Administration in Washington in its effort to come up with an energy strategy in the age of climate change. He met us in Sun Valley, close to the INL base in at Idaho Falls.

The INL is part of the National Laboratory System that includes according to the US Department of Energy the following sites:

The Site in Idaho was first used by the U.S. government in the 1940s as a Naval Proving Ground to test artillery.
In 1949, the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission established the National Reactor Testing Station and Atomic City was born. In the 1970s, the site was designated a national laboratory.

With the help of Wikipedia, we found out that The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is an 890 square miles (2,300 km2, 569,135 acres), the INL Site is roughly 85 percent the size of Rhode Island. The complex is located at an average 5000 feet (1524 m) in high desert land of eastern Idaho, between the town of Arco to the west and the city of Idaho Falls to the east of it – it lies within three counties – Butte, Bingham and Jefferson Counties. Most of INL is essentially  desert space with some scrub vegetation and a number of facilities scattered throughout the area.  A few publicly-accessible roads go through the INL area, but most of the area except EBR-1 is restricted to authorized personnel with appropriate security clearances. The tiny town of Atomic City is directly to the south of the INL area.

It was established in 1949 as the “National Reactor Testing Station” (NRTS). In 1975, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was divided into the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The Idaho site was for a short time named ERDA and then subsequently renamed to the “Idaho National Engineering Laboratory” (INEL) in 1977 with the creation of the Department of Energy (DOE) under President Carter. After two decades as INEL, the name was changed again to the “Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory” (INEEL) in 1997. Throughout its lifetime, there have been more than 52 nuclear reactors here of some type for testing. Most of them are shut down by now. We were told that all are shurt at this time.

On February 1, 2005, Battelle Energy Alliance took over operation of the lab from Bechtel, merged with Argonne National Laboratory-West, and the facility name was shortened to “Idaho National Laboratory” (INL).

At this time the laboratory’s clean-up activities were moved to a separate contract, the Idaho Cleanup Project, which is managed by contractor CH2M-WG Idaho. Research activities were consolidated in the newly named Idaho National Laboratory.

The lab currently employs about 8,000 people, with a major economic impact on Idaho Falls and surrounding communities and we can attest to the whole State of Idaho.

The original mission of NRTS was the development of nuclear energy during the immediate post-war years. In 1951, one of the most significant events in the 20th century occurred at the NRTS — the first harnessing of atomic energy for generating electric power. This happened at the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-1). The site of this event is memorialized as a Registered National Historic Landmark, open to the public every day Memorial Day through Labor Day. On July 17, 1955, a reactor at the NRTS made Arco the first town in the world to be powered by atomic energy.

The INL is thus the father of the peaceful use of nuclear power  and since evolved into a main center for US energy studies – studies of all sort of energy provisions and thus a main center for  the potential of a US Energy Policy.

On January 3, 1961, the only fatal nuclear reactor accident in the U.S. occurred at the NRTS. An experimental reactor called SL-1 (Stationary Low-Power Plant Number 1) was destroyed when a problem control rod was removed incorrectly leading to core meltdown and steam explosion. All three military enlisted personnel working in the reactor were killed. Due to the extensive radioactive  contamination, all three had to be buried in lead coffins. The events are the subject of two books: one published in 2003, “Idaho Falls: The untold story of America’s first nuclear accident” and another, “Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History” published in 2009.

For the air force, in 1949, an area of the fringe of the NRTS property with the help of the Atomic Energy Commission an Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program was attempted to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft. The programs’ Heat Transfer Reactor Experiments (HTRE) were conducted here in 1955 by contractor General Electric, and were a series of tests to develop a system of transferring reactor-heated air to a modified General Electric jet engine. The planned aircraft, the Convair X-6, was to be test flown here at TAN (Test Area North), and a large hangar with radiation shielding was built on the site. The program was cancelled, however, before the accompanying 15,000-foot (4,600 m) runway was built.

For the navy, in the early 1950s, the first full-scale prototype nuclear plant for shipboard use, called S1W Prototype, was constructed to test the feasibility of using nuclear power aboard submarines. The prototype plant was the predecessor to a similar nuclear plant of S2W design which was installed in the first nuclear-powered ship, the submarine USS Nautilus. Later, two more prototype plant facilities were built at this location called the Naval Reactors Facility (NRF for short). There is also an Expended Core Facility (ECF for short) also at NRF as well as administrative buildings/facilities. NRF’s chemistry lab was located at the S1W prototype. By now, the prototype plants for shipboard use development have been shut down.

Other activites included:

  • The Idaho Chemical Processing Plant chemically processed material from used reactor cores to recover reusable nuclear material. It is now called the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center.
  • The Materials Test Area tested materials’ exposure to reactor conditions – the Advanced Test Reactor Complex.
  • The Idaho National Laboratory’s Advanced Vehicle Testing Activity (AVTA) about plug-in hybrids (PHEVs).
  • Next Generation Nuclear Plant: INL is coordinating the Generation IV Nuclear Systems initiative, an international effort to develop the next generation nuclear power reactors. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, $1.25 billion was authorized to design and construct a “Next Generation Power Plant Project” for electricity-hydrogen cogeneration at the Idaho National Laboratory, and possibly at existing reactors, to explore production of hydrogen fuel from nuclear power.
  • Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative: INL is contributing to the extensive research, development and demonstration effort to close the fuel cycle (nuclear).

Added to the above, from our own trip, we can attest that at least one further technology – non-nuclear – is being investigated at the INL. This is the Wind Power technology, but we did not find this in the DOE and other material on the internet. There it is still full of: “The Next Atomic Age: Can Safe Nuclear Power Work for America?” as the main task for the INL. This was clearly so under the previous Administration, but considering the fact that also the Obama Administration is trying to make nuclear electricity as part of the electricity grid inputs, there is clearly continuing interest in making safer and cheaper the renewal of construction of a new generation of nuclear power reactors.

That is where I stopped when working on this posting on June 4th and somehow did not get back till today. In the meantime much has changed in the US because of the break-up of Deepwater and the following Gulf of Mexico oil-spill.

Low and behold, it comes to our attention that this accident is the equivalent of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident. We start thinking that the outcome will be a similar NIMBY situation – that is not in my backyard and not on my beach.

After Three Mile Island not a single commercial reactor was built in the US, and after the BP Deepwater accident a drilling moratorium is being implemented – first for half a year – and what then? If the beaches stay covered with oil – do you expect change? I write this because it might help focus the US on giving new task to the National laboratories that are closer to the needed new energy technologies, though it is also possible that Washington and the US people might also be more amenable to the use of nuclear technology.

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One Response to “The Idaho National Energy Laboratory – a relic of the past, or a gem for the future? (our 4th IDAHO posting)”

  1. htomfields Says:

    Here’s a video that provides more information about Idaho National Laboratory’s research programs.!/video/video.p…

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