New lab director expects more work on next wave of reactors

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) – The new director of the Idaho National Laboratory has said his efforts to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating a new generation of nuclear reactors appear to align with the goals of the new Biden administration and will likely enjoy continued bipartisan support.

The United States is currently involved in a massive effort to revamp the dying nuclear power industry in the country by developing safer fuels and power plants. The Idaho National Laboratory is a key part of this plan launched under the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration.

The United States obtains about 20% of its energy from nuclear power produced in nearly 100 nuclear power plants. But many are older and some are struggling to compete economically.

“We’ve obviously spoken to the transition teams, and we’ll continue to make sure they understand our mission and work with them,” said director John Wagner in an online interview with reporters on efforts to revamp the nuclear power generation. “I think we are well aligned with the priorities of the new administration.”

The lab is located on a large US Department of Energy site in eastern Idaho in the sagebrush steppe of the high desert, about 50 miles west of Idaho Falls. It employs over 4,000 workers and is a major economic engine of the state.

Battelle Energy Alliance, which runs the department’s lab, appointed Wagner to the post earlier this year, and he began his first full week as director on Monday. He worked in the lab for almost five years, previously as associate director for nuclear science and technology.

He replaces Mark Peters, who is now Executive Vice President of Laboratory Operations at Battelle, overseeing several national laboratories. Wagner is an expert in reactor and fuel cycle technologies who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for nearly 17 years,

“I moved across the country about five years ago to try to contribute more directly and personally to US leadership in nuclear energy,” he said. “That’s what motivates me.”

The drive to revamp nuclear power plants coincides with a change in attitude towards nuclear power, as it has become clear that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar will not be able to replace combustion. of fossil fuels to meet demand.

“Pretty much every study you look at, the carbon reduction targets that utilities, states and countries seek to achieve cannot be done without nuclear power,” Wagner said.

He also said that support for nuclear power among elected officials is partly driven by competition with Russia and China, which have become exporters of nuclear technology.

There are several plans to build new reactors in the Idaho lab, including the country’s first new test reactor in decades. Recently, the Department of Energy said this was the prime location for the reactor.

The final environmental impact statement of the project is expected in 2021, followed by what is called a decision file finalizing the selection of a site. Plans call for the construction of the reactor by the end of 2025.

Some scientists are wary of these “fast reactors”, noting that they are cooled with liquid sodium more difficult to control and probably fueled by plutonium, increasing the potential risks of nuclear terrorism as plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons .

The lab is also helping a Utah utility and an Oregon company that plan to build a dozen small modular reactors in Idaho. site. These reactors would be conventional light water reactors, but the designers say they would be much smaller, safer, and cheaper to build …

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