Idaho National Laboratory

Idaho National Laboratory

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The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has been in operation since 1949. It is almost 85 percent of the size of Rhode Island with 890 square miles.The laboratory was established as the National Reactor Testing Station and for many years was the site of the largest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. Navy’s first prototype nuclear propulsion plant, along with 51 nuclear reactors, were built there.During the 1970s, the laboratory broadened its uses into such other areas as biotechnology, energy and materials research, conservation, and renewable energy. At the end of the Cold War, waste treatment and cleanup of previously contaminated sites became a priority.The laboratory is more than a just a remote location to test reactors and build large projects; it is the ideal place to study nature, with the varied wildlife and plantlife of its high-desert terrain. The site also is protected from outside intrusion.In 1975, the Idaho National Laboratory became the nation's second largest National Environmental Research Park. That has allowed it to serve as an outdoor laboratory for environmental scientists to study Idaho's native plants and wildlife in an intact and relatively undisturbed ecosystem.The area consists of flat to gently rolling, high-desert terrain that is about 5,000 feet above sea level. More than 400 species of plants have been identified.Today, the INL is a science-based, applied engineering national laboratory dedicated to meeting the nation's environmental, energy, nuclear technology, and national security needs. It is a multiprogram, federally funded research and development center.

Idaho National Laboratory: Breaking new ground with the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program

A renewed U.S. interest in advanced nuclear technology is making headlines around the world. Growing energy needs and an increased desire to limit carbon emissions are driving a flurry of activity among education institutions, national laboratories, and private companies. New nuclear technologies are rapidly maturing toward commercialization with the aim of deploying a new generation of advanced reactors. These advanced nuclear energy systems have the potential to provide cost-effective, carbon-free energy create new jobs and expand nuclear energy’s outputs beyond electricity generation alone.

“DOE and U.S. industry are extremely well-equipped to develop and demonstrate nuclear reactors with the requisite sense of urgency, which is important not only to our economy, but to our environment, because nuclear energy is clean energy,” Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy, recently noted in a Department of Energy news release.

The DOE anticipates significant global demand for advanced reactors, and with support from Congress, intends to invest $3.2 billion over the next seven years in the new Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). The initial funding opportunity was announced in May 2020. The call specified the need for reactor technologies that improve on the safety, security, economics and/or environmental impact of currently operating reactor designs. The goal of the program is to maintain the nation’s leadership in the global nuclear energy industry through the successful research, design, and deployment of advanced reactors in the United States and international marketplaces.

The ARDP will provide funds for three phases of public-private technology development partnerships over the next decade and a half:

  1. Advanced Reactor Demonstrations: The initial $160 million funding allocation, announced in October 2020, will support two companies that can license, construct, and operate an advanced reactor design in the next five to seven years.
  2. Risk Reduction for Future Demonstration: The second phase of funding availability will support an additional two to five reactor designs that could be commercialized approximately five years after the Advanced Reactor Demonstrations. Awards are expected to be announced by the end of 2020.
  3. Advanced Reactor Concepts-20 (ARC-20): The third pathway to meet the advanced reactor demonstration goals will support up to two less mature reactor designs that will take a further five years to develop beyond the Risk Reduction phase.

INL’s role in the ARDP

As the nation’s leading nuclear energy laboratory, where 52 American reactors were designed, developed, and operated over the past 70 years, Idaho National Laboratory is in a unique position to contribute to the revitalization of nuclear energy in the United States.

With 52 historic reactors designed and operated at INL, the nation's leading nuclear energy laboratory has the talent and technical expertise to establish a new generation of nuclear energy.

INL has expertise in critical areas that can streamline the design, development, and deployment process for commercial partners, including the following:

  • Reactor design
  • Irradiation and post-irradiation examination
  • Fuel and materials qualification
  • Multiphysics modeling
  • Advanced manufacturing
  • Engineering
  • Safety and regulation

INL's facilities are available to assist collaborators during every step of the reactor development process.

INL's facilities are available to assist collaborators during every step of the reactor development process.

INL's facilities are available to assist collaborators during every step of the reactor development process.

INL's facilities are available to assist collaborators during every step of the reactor development process.

INL's facilities are available to assist collaborators during every step of the reactor development process.

In addition to INL’s experience and talented staff, the lab is home to a unique array of capabilities and facilities that exist nowhere else:

  • The Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) enables researchers to irradiate materials at an accelerated rate to minimize testing and qualification time for fuels and reactor materials.
  • The Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) provides valuable testing capabilities in off-normal circumstances to ensure safety.
  • The Hot Fuel Examination Facility (HFEF) is where post-irradiation tests are conducted on experiments to determine the effects on materials.
  • The Nuclear Computational Resource Center (NCRC) provides educational and commercial partners with access to INL’s supercomputing resources to support advanced nuclear modeling and data analysis work.

The private-public collaboration process

In support of the ARDP initiative, INL utilized its extensive industry ties by reaching out to more than two dozen companies engaged in the latest nuclear research. Corey McDaniel, INL’s chief commercial officer and point of contact for ARDP proposal coordination, discusses the process of supporting many ARDP applicants and INL’s history of success in supporting advanced nuclear projects.

“INL has a rich legacy of successfully realizing the nation’s most ambitious nuclear research initiatives," McDaniel said. "INL is where the first reactor to produce usable electricity was demonstrated and developed. We are now supporting a wide range of new nuclear reactor developments such as the ARDP demonstrations as well as support to the U.S. Department of Defense Strategic Capabilities Office’s Project Pele, which is developing mobile microreactors.”

He added, “The combination of talent and technological resources at INL is found nowhere else in the country–or even the world. INL is looking forward to supporting the ARDP as it gains momentum.”

One of the most important considerations for companies developing advanced reactors is partnering with organizations they can trust. Throughout the ARDP proposal development process, the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) worked closely with INL to maintain the confidentiality of each applicant’s information by establishing mechanisms such as Conflict of Interest disclosures and assigning one laboratory principal investigator for each partner. With a high degree of confidence in the process led by McDaniel and NRIC Deputy Director Nick Smith, INL now has a pipeline of reactor partners in various stages of development.

“The Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program is not only notable for the reactors that will be developed through its awards, but it is a starting point for a new wave of demonstration activities,” Smith said. “NRIC is looking forward to helping a new generation of innovators bring their designs to life.”

NRIC – The path to advanced reactors

INL is also home to the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC). NRIC is the DOE’s program created to give collaborators access to the services and capabilities offered across the national laboratory system. Led by Ashley Finan, NRIC is the pathway to bring the next generation of reactors to life. NRIC is uniquely positioned to help meet key demonstration milestones.

As a multilaboratory effort, NRIC is poised to provide reactor developers with capabilities at any participating laboratories, including (but not limited to) Argonne National Laboratory, INL, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Nevada National Security Site, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Savannah Ridge National Laboratory.

“Today’s commercial innovators have the spirit and drive to make these critical advancements in reactor technology, but they don’t typically have the resources to make it happen all on their own,” Finan said. “NRIC is the bridge between commercial organizations and the facilities and capabilities offered by the national laboratory system.”

Each of the reactor technologies under investigation presents unique advantages and uses. Rather than focus on a single partner or design, INL is taking a long-term approach by supporting multiple commercial partners throughout the ARDP. In addition to the $160 million in awards recently announced, the current congressional appropriation also includes $30 million toward between two and five Risk Reduction for Future Demonstration projects, as well as $20 million toward ARC-20 projects. ARDP applicants who were not selected for a demonstration award under the first pathway remain eligible for selection under the Risk Reduction pathway. Award announcements are expected for these projects by the end of the year.

Siting advanced reactors

One vital decision that has yet to be made relates to the siting of the Advanced Reactor Demonstrations. With the entire national laboratory system available, and additional siting possibilities with public utilities, there are several locations in the United States with the technical expertise and resources to give partners the greatest opportunity for success. With INL’s dedicated group of principal investigators, siting experts, legal and financial teams, project managers, and subject-matter experts, the leadership at the laboratory is closely involved in attracting demonstration reactors to Idaho.

Regardless of the sites selected, INL is committed to supporting all of its partners, not just those that receive awards. An important step in preparing for these partnerships was expanding INL’s site-use permit (SUP) process for companies that select INL for siting their demonstration or risk reductions reactors. Nine new reactors companies entered the DOE SUP portal for consideration to have reactors sited in Idaho.

This process builds on the SUPs recently granted to reactor companies NuScale and Oklo for building at INL unrelated to the ARDP:

Oklo recently received an SUP for its Aurora microreactor plant that will generate 1.5 MWe of power using high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel. Oklo has submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its reactor demonstration.

NuScale is developing a small modular reactor system in support of the Carbon Free Power Project created by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems. The proposed 12-reactor plant would provide a total of 720 MWe of electricity to public power utilities in six western states.

In anticipation of this process, INL has worked with DOE to dramatically reduce the turnaround time for SUPs. INL’s siting lead George Griffith noted that “NuScale’s SUP took more than two years, the SUP for Oklo took more than eight months, and we expect that quality SUP proposals can now be turned around in less than two months.”

Proposal awards

The funding opportunity announcement closed in August 2020. On October 13, the DOE announced the initial award recipients, selecting two teams to receive a total of $160 million in fiscal year 2020 funding for the ARDP: TerraPower LLC and X-energy. Each of the companies will receive $80 million, with the companies expected to match the award with development funds of their own.

Congress appropriated $160 million for the fiscal year 2020 budget as initial funding for these demonstration projects. According to the DOE news release announcing the initial award selections, funding beyond the near-term is contingent on additional future appropriations, evaluations of satisfactory progress, and DOE approval of continuation applications.

TerraPower Natrium Reactor

Based in Bellevue, Washington, TerraPower is planning to demonstrate the Natrium reactor, which is a sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor developed in partnership with GE-Hitachi. Fast reactors offer several advantages over slow-neutron reactors, including fuel efficiency and a higher operating temperature that can provide thermal energy storage in addition to electricity generation for flexibility in meeting demand. TerraPower’s Natrium reactor will provide 345 MWe of flexible electricity generation that can be utilized in conjunction with a molten salt integrated energy storage system. The reactor can convert heat directly into electricity for immediate use, or it can store the thermal energy in the molten salt system, which on demand can boost the operation to 500 MWe for more than 5½ hours. The flexibility of the system is ideal for use in concert with variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. This approach supports the case for cost-effective operation of advanced reactors, while also improving the public perception of nuclear energy as part of a more eco-friendly energy grid.

The TerraPower project scope also includes developing a new facility for fabricating metallic fuels to support the demonstration. INL will provide support for the project through fuel irradiation experiments in ATR and post-irradiation examination of fuels in the Hot Fuel Examination Facility. Additional testing activities will take place using the sodium loop at TREAT.

“TerraPower is excited to be working with Idaho National Lab,” explained Chris Levesque, TerraPower president and CEO. “We’ve been working with INL for more than 5 years on sodium fast reactor fuel development and look forward to continuing that work on the Natrium ARDP team, along with GE Hitachi and our other partners.”

The Natrium reactor design image courtesy of TerraPower.

Also receiving an award was X-energy, of Rockville, Maryland, which is planning to demonstrate a four-unit commercial plant based on a high-temperature, gas-cooled design called Xe-100. The Xe-100 is an 80-MWe microreactor that is designed to be installed in a modular configuration of four reactors producing a total of 320 MWe. The flexible design allows reactor modules to be added as they are needed. The fuel will consist of 220,000 graphite pebbles containing tristructural isotropic (TRISO) particle fuel, designed to maintain 95-percent plant availability even during the refueling process. The reactor’s high operating temperature provides an enhanced fuel burnup cycle that represents a significant efficiency improvement over commercial light-water reactors.

The X-energy reactor is also expected to provide flexible electrical output as well as process heat that can aid a variety of industrial applications including hydrogen generation and desalination. On the fuel side, X-energy is also planning to develop a commercial-scale facility for fabricating TRISO fuel, one of the most promising accident-tolerant fuels available.

The Xe-100 reactor design image courtesy of X-energy.

INL will support the X-energy demonstration with development of technologies for burnup measurements of individual fuel pebbles, which will help establish fuel safety and efficiency. The lab will also support the modeling and simulation work for the project by applying Nuclear Quality Assurance (NQA-1) standards and regulations to an independent design assessment using neutronic and thermal analysis. The resulting data will inform the reactor licensing application.

“We are honored by the DOE for selecting X-energy and our partners to deliver our commercial-scale Xe-100 advanced reactor by 2027,” said Clay Sell, X-energy CEO. “We commend the Department of Energy and Congress for recognizing the contribution of nuclear to the clean energy equation and in bringing this safe, secure, clean and affordable technology to the U.S. and many countries around the world.”

The two selected projects demonstrate the commitment of the Department of Energy to the development and eventual deployment of multi-use, economically competitive advanced nuclear reactors.

Timeline to advanced reactors

The DOE has set an ambitious but achievable timeline for the demonstration and eventual commercial deployment of advanced reactors. Research is being conducted now on a variety of advanced reactor concepts with different use cases that can help power remote communities, scale to meet the growing needs of cities, and provide benefits in addition to electricity generation.

Microreactors: These reactors are intended to provide 1 to 20 megawatts of thermal energy while being small enough to fit on the back of a semitruck. They can be fabricated in a factory and are intended to operate with minimal human supervision. These reactors are in development and are expected to be demonstrated as early as the middle of this decade.

Small modular reactors: SMRs can provide from tens to hundreds of megawatts of electricity based on the needs of each application. They can be largely fabricated in factories and assembled on-site, saving considerable capital expense. Additional modules can be assembled as need grows. The DOE is currently supporting a variety of commercial partners developing SMRs and associated technology, with awards for technical and regulatory research work. Commercially operating SMRs are expected to be deployed by the end of the decade.

Versatile Test Reactor (VTR): One significant capability currently unavailable in the United States is fast-neutron materials testing, which is needed for rapid and accurate research and development of new materials and nuclear fuel. To address this shortcoming, in 2019 the DOE authorized the development of the Versatile Test Reactor, with INL leading the project. In September this year, the DOE approved Critical Decision I for the VTR, paving the way for the final design and construction process. The VTR could be operational as early as 2026.

The DOE is poised for the deployment of a series of new reactor technologies by the end of the decade.

Next steps in advanced reactor development

This is an unprecedented time for nuclear energy, with a large number of new technologies in development and the commercialization of new reactor designs on the horizon. The next decade will see a revitalization of the U.S. power industry, resulting in cleaner electricity that meets the needs of a growing population as well as new applications for nuclear reactors that can reduce industrial and transportation sector carbon emissions.

“Not since the 1970s has there been such a flurry of both private innovation and support at the highest levels of government for nuclear energy,” said Craig Piercy, American Nuclear Society Executive Director and CEO. “It’s an exciting time for nuclear engineers and scientists to be at the forefront of America’s clean energy transition.”

McDaniel added, “We’re seeing a tremendous uptick in activity among technology developers. With the development of a new series of collaborative efforts between public and private organizations, INL is poised to expedite the success of the ARDP and maintain the United States’ position as the world leader in nuclear energy.”

Joel Hiller is a nuclear communications specialist at Idaho National Laboratory

History of the first 50 years of the Idaho National Laboratory September 4, 2010 7:06 PM Subscribe

Proving the Principle is a great read. Chapter 10 has a photo of S5G, where I went to prototype training as a plant mechanical operator and chemist.

Most of us lived in Idaho Falls or Blackfoot, about an hour away from the site. They had a fleet of greyhound-like buses run routes through town and out to the site every 4 hours around the clock. I can still picture riding the bus out hwy 20 as they all met up about the same time, so many buses it felt like being on a train. We only really knew what went on at the NRF site and could only daydream about what was going on in the other ones. And wonder what had gone on out the barbed-wire blocked, disrepaired little roads that submerged into the tumbleweeds a few hundred yards off the highway.
posted by ctmf at 8:38 AM on September 5, 2010

Ditto on Proving the Principle.

I'm so envious of the scientists that got to work on these projects in the 40s and 50s, when you could just drive out to the middle of the desert and blow shit up.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:23 PM on September 5, 2010

I live in Idaho Falls, and I think "the Site" still the biggest employer here. You would never guess from listening to the local politicians, though. According to them the region just pulled itself up by the bootstraps despite that meddling gummint.

The chapter on the nuclear aircraft engines is fascinating. I didn't know that the engines are on display - I usually only drive through the Site when I'm on my way to Craters of the Moon or Sun Valley. I found a link about Test Area North, where the engines were developed, and another about the nuclear aircraft program.
posted by gamera at 3:42 PM on September 5, 2010

I see what you did there. GAMERA!

From the end of the article at the "another" link.

In the end, after expending no less than $469,350,000 on the nuclear powered program and having a concept aircraft flying, the U.S. Air Force shelf the program in the late 1960s, thus ending any major attempt by the United States to utilizing nuclear propulsion to impulse an aircraft in combat.

That's right, folks. $469,350,000. Pre-inflationary dollars.

We are SO fucking stupid.
posted by PROD_TPSL at 4:13 PM on September 5, 2010

I don't know what they were doing at Test Area North when I was out there in the 90s, but I slept through my stop on the bus once and ended up at TAN. The guards at TAN were NOT AMUSED in an excessively spy-movie dramatic way. I was held until my chief from NRF came to get me in person and vouch that I really was who my various forms of photo ID said I was.

My chief was also not amused, in a more realistic way. I never did that again.
posted by ctmf at 10:45 AM on September 6, 2010

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How 30 Lines of Code Blew Up a 27-Ton Generator

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A control room in an Idaho National Labs facility. Photograph: JIM MCAULEY/The New York Times/Redux

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Earlier this week, the US Department of Justice unsealed an indictment against a group of hackers known as Sandworm. The document charged six hackers working for Russia's GRU military intelligence agency with computer crimes related to half a decade of cyberattacks across the globe, from sabotaging the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea to unleashing the most destructive malware in history in Ukraine. Among those acts of cyberwar was an unprecedented attack on Ukraine's power grid in 2016, one that appeared designed to not merely cause a blackout, but to inflict physical damage on electric equipment. And when one cybersecurity researcher named Mike Assante dug into the details of that attack, he recognized a grid-hacking idea invented not by Russian hackers, but by the United State government, and tested a decade earlier.

The following excerpt from the book SANDWORM: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin's Most Dangerous Hackers, published in paperback this week, tells the story of that early, seminal grid-hacking experiment. The demonstration was led by Assante, the late, legendary industrial control systems security pioneer. It would come to be known as the Aurora Generator Test. Today, it still serves as a powerful warning of the potential physical-world effects of cyberattacks—and an eery premonition of Sandworm's attacks to come.

On a piercingly cold and windy morning in March 2007, Mike Assante arrived at an Idaho National Laboratory facility 32 miles west of Idaho Falls, a building in the middle of a vast, high desert landscape covered with snow and sagebrush. He walked into an auditorium inside the visitors’ center, where a small crowd was gathering. The group included officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), executives from a handful of electric utilities across the country, and other researchers and engineers who, like Assante, were tasked by the national lab to spend their days imagining catastrophic threats to American critical infrastructure.

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At the front of the room was an array of video monitors and data feeds, set up to face the room’s stadium seating, like mission control at a rocket launch. The screens showed live footage from several angles of a massive diesel generator. The machine was the size of a school bus, a mint green, gargantuan mass of steel weighing 27 tons, about as much as an M3 Bradley tank. It sat a mile away from its audience in an electrical substation, producing enough electricity to power a hospital or a navy ship and emitting a steady roar. Waves of heat coming off its surface rippled the horizon in the video feed’s image.

Assante and his fellow INL researchers had bought the generator for $300,000 from an oil field in Alaska. They’d shipped it thousands of miles to the Idaho test site, an 890-square-mile piece of land where the national lab maintained a sizable power grid for testing purposes, complete with 61 miles of transmission lines and seven electrical substations.

Now, if Assante had done his job properly, they were going to destroy it. And the assembled researchers planned to kill that very expensive and resilient piece of machinery not with any physical tool or weapon but with about 140 kilobytes of data, a file smaller than the average cat GIF shared today on Twitter.

Three years earlier, Assante had been the chief security officer at American Electric Power, a utility with millions of customers in 11 states from Texas to Kentucky. A former navy officer turned cybersecurity engineer, Assante had long been keenly aware of the potential for hackers to attack the power grid. But he was dismayed to see that most of his peers in the electric utility industry had a relatively simplistic view of that still-theoretical and distant threat. If hackers did somehow get deep enough into a utility’s network to start opening circuit breakers, the industry’s common wisdom at the time was that staff could simply kick the intruders out of the network and flip the power back on. “We could manage it like a storm,” Assante remembers his colleagues saying. “The way it was imagined, it would be like an outage and we’d recover from the outage, and that was the limit of thinking around the risk model.”

But Assante, who had a rare level of crossover expertise between the architecture of power grids and computer security, was nagged by a more devious thought. What if attackers didn’t merely hijack the control systems of grid operators to flip switches and cause short-term blackouts, but instead reprogrammed the automated elements of the grid, components that made their own decisions about grid operations without checking with any human?

An electrical substation at Idaho National Labs’ sprawling, 890-square-mile test site.

Courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory

In particular, Assante had been thinking about a piece of equipment called a protective relay. Protective relays are designed to function as a safety mechanism to guard against dangerous physical conditions in electric systems. If lines overheat or a generator goes out of sync, it’s those protective relays that detect the anomaly and open a circuit breaker, disconnecting the trouble spot, saving precious hardware, even preventing fires. A protective relay functions as a kind of lifeguard for the grid.

But what if that protective relay could be paralyzed—or worse, corrupted so that it became the vehicle for an attacker’s payload?

That disturbing question was one Assante had carried over to Idaho National Laboratory from his time at the electric utility. Now, in the visitor center of the lab’s test range, he and his fellow engineers were about to put his most malicious idea into practice. The secret experiment was given a code name that would come to be synonymous with the potential for digital attacks to inflict physical consequences: Aurora.

The test director read out the time: 11:33 am. He checked with a safety engineer that the area around the lab’s diesel generator was clear of bystanders. Then he sent a go-ahead to one of the cybersecurity researchers at the national lab’s office in Idaho Falls to begin the attack. Like any real digital sabotage, this one would be performed from miles away, over the internet. The test’s simulated hacker responded by pushing roughly 30 lines of code from his machine to the protective relay connected to the bus-sized diesel generator.

The inside of that generator, until that exact moment of its sabotage, had been performing a kind of invisible, perfectly harmonized dance with the electric grid to which it was connected. Diesel fuel in its chambers was aerosolized and detonated with inhuman timing to move pistons that rotated a steel rod inside the generator’s engine—the full assembly was known as the “prime mover”—roughly 600 times a minute. That rotation was carried through a rubber grommet, designed to reduce any vibration, and then into the electricity-generating components: a rod with arms wrapped in copper wiring, housed between two massive magnets so that each rotation induced electrical current in the wires. Spin that mass of wound copper fast enough and it produced 60 hertz of alternating current, feeding its power into the vastly larger grid to which it was connected.

Idaho Site historical artifact proves invaluable for modern radiation safety

ARCO – Much of the research occurring at Idaho National Laboratory focuses on science, rather than history. However, the INL site is also home to a rich history that has shaped the lab’s work. INL’s history lives on and informs its current operations in many surprising forms, including a behemoth midcentury radiation detector salvaged for modern use because of its invaluably rare material composition.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy used the land where the INL desert Site complex now sits for testing Pacific Fleet guns. In 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission sought an ideal location for its new brainchild, the National Reactor Testing Station, which would explore the peacetime applications of nuclear technology. They selected the Arco Desert testing grounds for this globally significant research.

As the grounds were reshaped to accommodate the new goals of the National Reactor Testing Station, measuring radioactivity became a key concern. Several health physicists ended up salvaging the lining of a naval gun barrel to solve this problem. The lining was made of prewar steel, which is free of manmade radiation and reduces background radiation to an absolute minimum. Using this steel, they built a large whole-body counter.

In 2018 following the demolition of the surrounding original 1951 Radiological and Environmental Sciences Laboratory, concerns arose about the counter sitting outside, unused and exposed to the elements. INL’s Environment, Safety Health & Quality group were among the experts who began considering ways to repurpose this historical artifact and tool.

“This is a part of the lab’s history, and if we can take that little piece of the past and use it to help us in the future, that’s a win for everyone,” said Chere Morgan, chief operations officer for the Environment, Safety Health & Quality group.

This ultimately led to successfully relocating the whole-body counter to a large indoor facility and repurposing it to measure the background radiation of large samples or items.

Radiological and historical context for repurposing

Mary Scales English, of INL’s Cultural Resources department, worked with radiological control experts to document the significance of the whole-body counter. The team proposed that retaining it was vital for posterity due to its unique characteristics. Moreover, a resource analysis revealed that keeping it at INL had strong financial and radiological benefits.

“The process for documenting the whole-body counter’s removal would have involved documenting its use, photographing it and ensuring that we had everything in order before removing it,” said Scott Lee, Cultural Resources manager. “Both the effort required to remove it and its historical significance made the decision to keep the whole-body counter on-site and repurpose it an easy one.”

The efforts to retain the whole-body counter received acknowledgment from Idaho’s State Historic Preservation Office. The office noted that what INL did with the whole-body counter was exactly what agencies should be doing to preserve and reuse historically significant objects.

In addition to the complex historical preservation angle, moving and reusing the whole-body counter had to be justified from a radiological and budgetary standpoint.

After conducting several tests, radiological control experts demonstrated what they had known from the outset: Repurposing the whole-body counter was a radiologically sound undertaking.

The physical move

Once the move was approved, the lab’s decontamination and decommissioning (D&D) team stepped in for the literal heavy lifting.

The whole-body counter weighs 55 tons – roughly the weight of nine adult elephants. According to Herb Pollard, the D&D manager in charge of the project, this weight reaches the upper limit of what his team and their equipment would typically move.

Many senior D&D team members had retired shortly before the moving process. Incoming trainees and the remaining senior staff had to jump right into this difficult project, but they rose to the challenge. The D&D team successfully relocated the whole-body counter into an ambulance bay on the INL campus, which was one of the few facilities with enough space for the massive structure.

“Once we got the whole-body counter into the ambulance bay and leveled, we ran into another issue,” Pollard said. “We had to adjust the door, which weighed 15,000 pounds alone because it had shifted during the move and was jamming.”

They ended up also repainting and refurbishing the whole-body counter.

The future of the whole-body counter

Moving forward, the project team will set up the new and improved whole-body counter and establish the critical procedures necessary to ensure its continued success.

Radiological control experts will develop a process designed to help the lab use the whole-body counter as an ultra-low background shield. This shield removes natural and human-made background radiation. When combined with state-of-the-art instrumentation, the whole-body counter can detect and characterize possible residual radioactive material on or in a piece of equipment or material destined for reuse or disposal.

Once the items are deemed safe, they can then be released for reuse or disposal through standard methods.

“The whole-body counter is a crucial part of the lab’s history, and it was incredible to watch such a talented and dedicated team come together to make this repurposing effort successful,” said Morgan.

According to Brad Schrader, a radiological expert at INL, steel from before World War II “is incredibly rare nowadays. It’s quite incredible to still have some in use here at INL.”

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The site became a federal installation early during World War II. In 1942, the U.S. Navy used some of the land to test cannons it had pulled off warships and fitted with new linings at a Pocatello plant. The site was unpopulated and only about 60 miles north of Pocatello — an ideal place to test the plant’s armaments.

After the war, Congress established the Atomic Energy Commission, whose role in part was to oversee the development of atomic and energy. In the commission's early days, though, its five members were mostly focused on the budding Cold War and building enough nuclear weapons to keep pace with the USSR, which had emerged from World War II as the United States' chief rival.

By the late 1940s, the commission was looking around the states for a place where it could build reactors and test their capabilities and risks. They needed a remote place with plentiful petroleum fuel, water and electrical power.

A list of about 20 candidate sites was trimmed to two finalists: Fort Peck, just north of the Missouri River in northeastern Montana and Idaho's Naval Proving Ground, where cannon testing had all but stopped, according to author Susan Stacy's "Proving the Principle," the definitive history of Idaho National Laboratory.

The Idaho site had several advantages. The commission estimated it would cost $50 million less to develop than the Fort Peck site, Stacy wrote. Operations would cost less than in Montana, too. Towns like Idaho Falls, Arco, Blackfoot and Pocatello also offered better places to absorb the population growth that would come once the lab was under construction and, later, up and running.

On Feb. 18, 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that it had chosen the Idaho site for the National Reactor Testing Station. It expected to spend $500 million on reactors, research facilities and other projects.

The commission sent Leonard Johnston, a veteran executive of the nation's early nuclear achievements, to Idaho to decide where to place the headquarters, which would include offices for the research mission's leaders.

The cities surrounding the site began lobbying for the privilege. Each had advantages. Arco, about 60 miles due west of Idaho Falls, was closest to the site. Pocatello had transfer warehouses, office buildings and other structures left over from the cannon-repair plant that could be used. Blackfoot had a paved road linking it directly to the center of the site.

But while those cities held events and brought out dignitaries to promote their candidacy, none schmoozed quite as much as Idaho Falls did.

The Chamber of Commerce concocted what would become known as the "party plan," according to "Proving the Principle." Business leaders, including the publisher of the local newspaper, the Post Register, threw cocktail parties and luncheons for Johnston. They took him on tours of the city's sights, including a new civic auditorium. They bragged about schools and parks.

"Guest lists were carefully crafted to include the young wives in town who were 'as winsome as possible,'" Stacy wrote. "In Idaho Falls, AEC scientists would not be destitute denizens of a cultural desert, but would be eagerly embraced by a friendly and hospitable town with everything going for it."

Idaho Falls created an impressive illusion: a road to the site. Before Johnston's arrival, attorney and chamber leader Bill Holden arranged for road graders to "go to the western edge of town where they moved sufficient dirt around to give a convincing impression that the road to Arco was under construction," according to "Proving the Principle."

"The road seemed, for all practical purposes, a fait accompli. Holden's orchestration was so thorough that some of the vehicles appeared to be regular daily traffic already using the road for routine business."


Johnston picked Idaho Falls that spring.

Two and a half years later, one of the most important milestones in the history of nuclear energy occurred on the site. On Dec. 20, 1951, the Experimental Breeder Reactor became the world's first power plant to produce electricity with atomic energy.

Jan. 3, 1961 brought a horrific accident. Three operators were killed in a steam explosion and meltdown at the Stationary Low-Power Reactor No. 1, known informally as SL-1. The accident remains the only nuclear mishap in United States history to result in immediate deaths.

Rumors emerged that a love triangle involving two of the operators and a wife rendered one of them so despondent and jealous that he pulled out the reactor's control rods — essentially, its brakes — in a murder-suicide sabotage. Those rumors were never confirmed.

Over the years, the federal government built and operated dozens of reactors on the site. Most have been decommissioned, though the site is still home to the Advanced Test Reactor, where nuclear researchers from all over the world come to test reactor materials and fuels.

Breaking the Big E: Already more than $1 billion in projected costs and snarled in red tape

Contractors could cut the cost of dismantling the decommissioned USS Enterprise without hurting Navy readiness.

INL is now the country's lead nuclear-energy research laboratory. It employs thousands of workers — engineers, scientists, support staff and cleanup crews responsible for removing and shipping out of state thousands of tons of radioactive and hazardous waste long buried at the site.

Federal nuclear energy research still makes up the core of INL's $1.2 billion operating budget, but other missions have grown. Those include developing better batteries, charging infrastructure, low-energy manufacturing, electric vehicles, alternative fuels, space-exploration technologies and cybersecurity for industrial systems.

Less than half the lab's budget is now earmarked for nuclear research, Lab Director Mark Peters told the Statesman. Recently, a company called NuScale Power proposed building an array of small reactors that would work together to produce as much power as a traditional large reactor. The earliest that plant would be operational is 2026, Peters said.

Despite a waning interest in nuclear energy in the United States, Peters said, countries like China and Saudi Arabia are building nuclear plants. And the Idaho National Laboratory offers them a valuable service.

Complete Guide to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) - History from Atomic Reactors to Nuclear Waste Cleanup, Rickover and the Nuclear Navy, SL-1 Fatal Reactor Accident, Uranium and Plutonium

Two comprehensive histories of the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) provide extensive information about the lab's role in the development of nuclear reactors and other technologies, covering the period from before its establishment in 1949 through 2010. Originally created as the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS), the laboratory has evolved over the years and acquired a number of slightly different names, including the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL) and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). The history of dozens of important atomic reactors is outlined in these reports. There also is coverage of the famous SL-1 reactor accident.

Contents: Proving the Principle * 1 Aviator's Cave * 2 The Naval Proving Ground * 3 The Uranium Trail Leads To Idaho * 4 The Party Plan * 5 Inventing The Testing Station * 6 Fast Flux, High Flux And Rickover's Flux * 7 Safety Inside And Outside The Fences * 8 The Reactor Zoo Goes Critical * 9 Hot Stuff * 10 Cores And Competencies * 11 The Chem Plant * 12 Reactors Beget Reactors * 13 The Triumph Of Political Gravity Over Nuclear Flight * 14 Imagining The Worst * 15 The SL-1 Reactor * 16 The Aftermath * 17 Science In The Desert * 18 The Shaw Effect * 19 And The Idaho Boost * 20 A Question Of Mission * 21 By The End Of This Decade * 22 Jumping The Fence * 23 The Endowment Of Uranium * 24 The Uranium Trail Fades * 25 Mission: Future * Transformed: A Recent History of the Idaho National Laboratory, 2000-2010


During the first decade of this century, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) got a new name, a new structure, and a newly-revitalized mission as the nation's lead nuclear energy research laboratory. For a laboratory that began the decade in search of a well-defined mission and being offered up for cleanup and closure, the 2000s saw a dramatic turnaround. As the last century ended, Idaho's national laboratory was still known as the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), the last "e" in the acronym symbolizing the fact that the majority of the lab's budget came from the Department of Energy's Environmental Management program. As the new century progressed, however, the department merged INEEL and Argonne National Laboratory-West (ANL-W) into one unified "INL." The result was a nearly billion dollar a year entity that led the newly-revitalized interest in nuclear power, in a country trying to cope with the specter of global warming and rising carbon emissions. To accommodate this growing mission and revitalize a laboratory that had not seen much in the way of new infrastructure over the past 20 years or so, the Department of Energy and Congress invested over $900 million in the lab through the Idaho Facilities Management Fund. That money was spent upgrading the infrastructure at the Advanced Test Reactor Complex and the Materials and Fuels Complex at the desert site, and at the Research and Education Campus in Idaho Falls - the three areas where the INL's primary nuclear energy research mission is carried out.

  • Title: Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Idaho Chemical Processing Plant, Fuel Reprocessing Complex, Scoville, Butte County, ID
  • Creator(s): Historic American Engineering Record, creator
  • Related Names:
       Foster Wheeler Corporation
       Bechtel Corporation
       U.S. Department of Energy
       Phillips Petroleum
  • Date Created/Published: Documentation compiled after 1968
  • Medium: Photo(s): 93
    Data Page(s): 80
    Photo Caption Page(s): 15
  • Reproduction Number: ---
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on images made by the U.S. Government images copied from other sources may be restricted. (
  • Call Number: HAER ID-33-H
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
  • Notes:
    • Significance: For nearly four decades, the Fuel Reprocessing Complex (Buildings CPP-601, CPP-603, CPP-627, and CPP-640) at the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant (ICPP) recovered usable uranium from spent reactor fuel. The facility was constantly evolving to process new types of spent nuclear fuel and would eventually process materials from nearly 100 different reactors. Research and test reactors located at the National Reactor Testing Station supplied a large proportion of the fuel load for the facility, along with nearly all of the fuel cores that had powered the United States Navy's fleet of nuclear submarines and surface ships. Fuels clad in aluminum, zirconium, stainless steel, and graphite were routinely processed at the plant. Custom processing capabilities were also developed through the years and a variety of valuable isotopes and inert gases were isolated and shipped to research laboratories across the country. As ICPP scientists developed the facilities and skills necessary to reprocess highly enriched fuels from so many different sources, they also came up with many general improvements and scientific advances in fuel reprocessing techniques and waste management as a whole. In 1992, when changing political tides and lowered demand for uranium caused the Department of Energy to halt all fuel reprocessing efforts across the country, approximately 31,432 kg of uranium had been successfully recovered at the Idaho Chemical Processing Plant. The four main buildings that housed the complex fuel reprocessing operation now await decontamination and demolition.
    • Survey number: HAER ID-33-H
    • Building/structure dates: after. 1953- before. 1961 Initial Construction
    • Cold War
    • nuclear facilities
    • nuclear reactors
    • Idaho -- Butte County -- Scoville
    • Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey

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    • Reproduction Number: ---
    • Call Number: HAER ID-33-H
    • Medium: Photo(s): 93
      Data Page(s): 80
      Photo Caption Page(s): 15

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      Idaho National Laboratory - Idaho Falls, Idaho

      During the past 40 years, the Department of Energy has operated and tested more than 50 reactors at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) in southeastern Idaho. Also tested were waste-disposal, fuel processing, and fuel handling facilities. The Radiation Studies Branch started a dose reconstruction study at this site in 1992. The purpose of this research is to identify the release of chemicals and radioactive materials since the site opened and determine the potential health effects of these releases on the community. The CDC and its contractors have conducted a complete document search and created a bibliographic database, Phase I. A subsequent contractor conducted additional searches, plus copied many documents identified in Phase I. This database is available on the Internet.

      The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory Searchable Bibliographic Database

      The CDC has completed preliminary studies of the radionuclide and chemical releases (following are final reports). The National Academy of Sciences has conducted a review of the radionuclide report.

      Photo, Print, Drawing Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Idaho Chemical Processing Plant, Fuel Reprocessing Complex, Scoville, Butte County, ID

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