Take a Look Inside the World’s First Nuclear Power Plant
Nuclear power — it remains one of the most controversial yet impressive forms of power generation in the world. When it works well, nuclear power provides relatively clean fossil-fuel free energy. It also produces continuous electric energy. When it goes awry, however, nuclear meltdowns can impact an area for decades upon decades.
No nuclear power plant tells that story better than the Idaho National Laboratory. For over 70 years, the laboratory has played a crucial role in nuclear power development. However, few people know much about it. The Idaho National Laboratory covers over 900 square miles of eastern Idaho. It holds three primary facility areas — the Advanced Test Reactor Complex, Materials and Fuels Complex, and a Research and Education Campus. Over 3,400 guests tour the INL campus each year, and the public only gets to see a small portion of what the INL truly does and the history it holds.
According to official documents, 52 first-of-their-kind nuclear reactors were designed and built on INL grounds. This also includes the world’s first electricity-generating nuclear power plant. The INL also served as the power plant for the globe’s first nuclear submarine — the USS Nautilus.
The INL’s most recent headline-making news came from its “wonder fuel.” The INL’s reactors were designed to ‘breed’ or generate its own new plutonium fuel and electricity simultaneously. However, between 1964 to present, the need for the wonder fuel waned due to high safety concerns, rising costs, and uranium scarcity.
(Above) During the nuclear power era for the INL, these four lights were the first items powered by the INL’s nuclear electricity. (Below) And they still run today.
Now, the Idaho National Laboratory houses 26 metric tons of radioactive waste, the LA Timesreported. No one knows what to do with it. A legal settlement dictated that the waste should be treated and ready to leave by 2035. That doesn’t look like it will happen on time.
“The process doesn’t work,” Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has documented the problems in a new report, told the newspaper. “It turned out to be harder to execute and less reliable than they promised.”
What makes it that difficult compared to transporting other nuclear waste? Sodium. The wonder fuel got bonded to sodium in order to facilitate easier heat transfer in the reactor. However, sodium’s reactive nature, especially around water, makes the wonder fuel limited in disposal opportunities. Government researchers have to pyroprocess the fuel. In pyroprocessing, spent fuel parts get put into a chemical bath and shocked with a strong electrical current. The sodium particles bond to another substance due to the electrical current.
According to the LA Times reporting, the project for cleanup started nearly two decades ago. At this time, only 15 percent of the waste has successfully been cleaned and processed. That’s over 20 times slower than the pace needed to reach the 2035 mark.
“When the implementation plan for the treatment of the [spent fuel] was developed in 2000, there was very limited nuclear energy research and development being performed in the United States,” a department spokesperson said.
“The funding for this program has been limited in favor of other research and development activities. The Department remains strongly committed to the treatment of this fuel in time to meet its commitments to the State of Idaho.”
Nuclear waste isn’t something that can easily be swept under the rug (or thrown away). With Idaho National Laboratory’s longstanding history as an innovative place for nuclear power, maybe it can serve as grounds for an innovative type of nuclear waste disposal.