Where the U.S. government researches a nuclear future

At the Idaho National Lab, the U.S. Department of Energy's leading nuclear research facility, the argument is made daily that nuclear power is our best source of clean, safe energy.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read

In 1955, the tiny town of Arco, Idaho, became the first community in the 'free world' to be powered by nuclear-based electricity. With the power coming from the nearby Experimental Breeder Reactor I, operated by the Nuclear Reactor Testing Station. Over time, the idea of using nuclear power for municipal electricity fell out of favor. But today, at the Idaho National Lab, the leading U.S. Department of Energy nuclear energy research institution, the idea is very much at the forefront, as scientists and policymakers alike search for ways to provide more power while creating less of a carbon footprint. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

ARCO, Idaho--On July 17, 1955, this tiny town, which might otherwise have forever escaped notoriety of any kind, was put on the map for a very historic reason: It became the first place in the "free world" to be powered by "electrical energy developed from the atom."

The power was generated by an experimental reactor run by the nearby National Reactor Testing Station, and the flipping of the switch seemed to usher in a new era for the United States and the world: the nuclear era.

Over time, the U.S. and other countries grew more and more attracted to the idea of nuclear power as a major alternative to fossil fuel-based power. But by the 1980s and early 1990s, the country had lost its appetite for the fuel source. It was seen as dangerous, too closely related to nuclear weapons, and too productive of nuclear waste, and gradually, the number of working nuclear power plants got smaller and smaller. In many places, in fact, the mere mention of nuclear power will draw a dirty stare.

But in Arco, there is still a civic pride associated with the events of 1955, and today, there is a growing national enthusiasm for the idea that back then, in the heart of the Cold War, seemed so novel: turning to nuclear power as a major source of energy.

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Nowhere, perhaps, is that enthusiasm more palpable than at the Idaho National Lab (INL), the U.S. Department of Energy's lead nuclear research institution. Located in and around Idaho Falls, Idaho, INL is at the forefront of developing the technology that could bring nuclear back to the grownups' table, and the researchers there--and clearly, some policymakers in Washington, D.C., as well--feel that nuclear is our best bet for providing a good deal of the power needs of both the general population and industry, while at the same time keeping the carbon footprint small.

I visited INL this week as part of Road Trip 2009, and was given the lowdown on why nuclear is thought to be a better energy alternative than ever before, and why the public shouldn't worry about the kinds of safety concerns that were so prevalent after high-profile reactor accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986.

My first stop was for a visit with Phillip Finck, INL's associate director for nuclear science and technology (see video below).

Finck explained that the genesis of his lab, which was formed about four years ago, was a feeling that a nuclear renaissance is coming, driven both by a need for new dependable sources of energy and by major climate concerns.

The vision behind the lab, he continued, is to figure out how to address America's carbon dioxide problems with nuclear. Today, roughly one-third of our domestic power output goes into electricity production, a third into transportation and a third into industrial, home heating, and other applications. Of that total output, nearly 85 percent comes from fossil fuels, while only 6 percent to 7 percent comes from hydropower and an equal amount from nuclear. A very small amount comes from other sources, such as biomass, he added.

As a result, the thinking is that nuclear can be a significant part of the solution, and in several ways.

The first, he explained, would be the building of new nuclear power plants; the second, the extension of the lifetimes of the 104 existing nuclear plants in the country; and the third would be using existing--and new--plants to produce new processed heats and liquid fuels that could replace existing carbon-based fuels.

Of course, there would still be the question of how to deal with the nuclear waste from the plants, but Finck said that is also something INL is working hard on. To begin with, INL is looking into ways to make existing reactors produce less waste, and at the same time, the lab, and other research facilities, are working on technologies designed to take spent fuels and through the process of transmutation, reduce their toxicity. The latter would mean, he added, that it could be possible to reuse much of the radioactive waste and reduce the toxicity of the eventual waste by a factor of up to 100.

What this all means is that the time has come, Finck continued, to pursue the development of what he called fourth-generation nuclear power plants. This is a growing research field that is being worked on in as many as 12 countries around the world, including the U.S., Japan, France, and China, all of which are working together to make these next-generation reactors possible.

The criteria of these new reactors are simple, Finck said: they would need to be cheaper, be more sustainable--meaning that they would produce less waste; have constantly improving safety standards; and would have improved proliferation resistance--meaning they would have less and less applicability for nuclear weapons.

Today, this is all in the research stage, but according to Finck, it's possible that the first fourth-generation plant could come online sometime around 2020.

In the meantime, however, there are factors that make even today's nuclear reactors more of a solution for our national energy problems than ever before, he said. To begin with, the operating and safety performance of the nation's plants have never been higher. There haven't been any notable safety problems in the U.S. since Three Mile Island, Finck said, and today, plants are operating at 92 percent efficiency, meaning that they are online 92 percent of the time.

And that has come as a result of better-than-ever training and discipline and means that existing plants are producing power at the equivalent of several entirely new plants, just from that increased efficiency, he argued.

Hydrogen Production
My next stop was to visit with Stephen Herring, the technical director for High Temperature Electrolysis in the Energy Department's office of nuclear energy nuclear hydrogen initiative.

Herring and his team are working on a number of experiments, but their major purpose is to develop methods, using nuclear reactors, of producing hydrogen as a way of improving the quality of existing liquid fuels and to produce more liquid fuels with zero, or at least much less usage of carbon dioxide.

As well, Herring's lab is all about looking for technical answers to problems raised by industry and then finding out, from industry, if they're on the right track.

At the next facility, the Fuel Conditioning Facility, I was shown a series of what are called "hot cells," which are highly radioactive areas behind five feet and nine layers of lead glass.

One of the first things I saw in the hot cells was a series of spent fuel rods from the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR II), which was a formerly working reactor designed, built, and operated by the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, and closed down by congressional decree in 1994.

If someone were to go inside the room, my host for the day, Don Miley, said, they "wouldn't see the sun go down. So we're not going in there."

In a similar facility, the Hot Fuel Examination Facility, we saw a different set of hot cells, this time behind four feet of glass, but no less dangerous on the other side (see video below). There, David Petti, the director of the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) technology development office, explained that his program is to work on a gas reactor, a "passively safe reactor" that is cooled with helium, and which has a reactor core made of graphite, and which is "tall and skinny" at 28 meters high and 8 meters wide.

Because it's graphite, which absorbs heat, he explained, it's resilient to accidents. That would mean that even in the case of an accident, it would take hundreds of hours to overheat.

"The joke," Petti said, is that in the case of an accident, "the operators could go to lunch, dinner and breakfast before having to figure out what to do."

Developed after Three Mile Island, the VHTR uses a unique kind of fuel: half-inch diameter and inch-long pellets made from huge numbers of compacted microscopic uranium particles covered in three layers of carbon and silicon carbine and then coated in graphite. The pellets, Petti explained, can take heats up to 1600 degrees Celsius without failing.

Inside the reactor, there are millions of these pellets, as well as tennis-ball sized spheres called "pebbles," and when bombarded with neutrons, they fission and create heat.

But the carbon covering the particles protects the uranium up to temperatures of 3,000 degrees Celsius, and the reactor is designed, he said, not to get above 1,600 degrees. "Everything is designed from that worst-case accident," he said, "so heat is always moved, and so it never gets that hot."

Looking into the cooling pond at the Idaho National Labs Advanced Test Reactor, it is possible to see a blue glow coming off of nuclear fuel stored below, which is based on the Cherenkov Effect. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Another goal, he said, is to increase what is called "burnup," or how much of the fission is used for getting power on the grid. Today's water-cooled plants have a burnup rate of around 5 percent, he said, but at the INL's Advanced Test Reactor, they're working on getting that number up to 19 percent.

The idea, then, is to use the VHTR to prove the model and then begin building out similar reactors for use in industry. Ideally, then, companies like Chevron and Dow would license such plants in order to produce heat at constant cost and low carbon footprint, Petti said. And such a buildout of new reactors would make a big difference, he added, because a company like Dow has the same level of hydrocarbon usage as a country like Kuwait.

National Scientific User Facility
The last stop of the day was at the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), a fully functional reactor that is used in large part by the Navy for a series of experiments, as well as by universities and government and industry researchers.

A big part of the ATR's mission is as the National Scientific User Facility, under which university researchers submit proposals for time in the reactor to conduct experiments. At any given time, there might be about 45 different experiments underway.

And one of the biggest utilities of the ATR is that because its core is geared towards giving every experiment exposure to as many neutrons as they need, it serves as somewhat of a "time machine," explained Frances Marshall, the ATR experiment program manager. That means, she said, that because neutrons erode metals, researchers can see a 20x aging effect on the metals in their experiments due to the bombardment of neutrons inside ATR.

Ultimately, it's too early to know whether the nation and the world will get behind a re-emergence of nuclear power plants as a major energy source. But at INL, the researchers and scientists there are making the argument that such facilities are both safe and energy and cost effective.

If true, a lot more towns like Arco, Idaho could someday see their power provided by nuclear reactors. In the short term, though, the world is hungry for new clean power, and a lot of people think the best answer is nuclear.

For the next several weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be writing about and photographing the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Colorado. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.