Research at an eastern Idaho nuclear facility is key to boosting nuclear energy to meet President Joe Biden’s goals of 100% clean electricity by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2050, Energy Department Secretary Jennifer Granholm said.
Granholm on Wednesday toured facilities at the 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s leading nuclear energy research lab.
She said increasing nuclear power could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming and extreme weather events such as floods and wildfires. About 100 nuclear power plants provide about 20% of the nation’s power and 50% of the nation's zero carbon-emitting energy.
“The whole world has to lean into getting to net zero and addressing climate change,” said Granholm, the former Democratic governor of Michigan, in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “Nuclear is such a clear part of that. I meet with my counterparts from all over the world, and everywhere people are looking to us to help them reach their goals with nuclear.”
The Idaho National Laboratory, or INL, is one of 17 national labs. Wednesday was Granholm's first visit to the lab.
“Not just the facilities, but the people who are working there are amazing,” she said after the tour. “We're lucky to have such incredible talent.”
The lab is leading multiple efforts to advance various nuclear energy technologies. Those include small modular reactors that could be built more economically than existing commercial reactors, micro-reactors that could be quickly brought in for energy generation, and experiments to develop new types of nuclear fuels and components for a new generation of reactors.
“Having (Granholm) out here was obviously of great importance to the INL and to me personally,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who accompanied Granholm on the tour and has been a key figure in bringing federal research money to the lab that's a significant economic driver with about 4,500 workers. “I'm very pleased that she's very supportive of nuclear energy. If you're actually going to get to zero emissions and reduce climate change, then nuclear energy has got to be a part of it.”
Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing new technologies with nuclear power began during the Obama administration and have continued under both the Trump and Biden administrations.
The Energy Department last month selected the INL as the site for a sodium-cooled fast test reactor that would be the first fast spectrum test reactor to operate in the United States in nearly three decades. Officials said it would dramatically reduce the time needed to develop new nuclear fuels and components.
However, Congress hasn't approved funding for the Versatile Test Reactor, or VTR. Simpson, the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies, said the VTR hadn't been funded because money is limited and has gone to other nuclear research projects.
“We're going to fight to try to get the funding restored in that so we can move forward with that at the INL,” Simpson said.
Granholm said she's aware that many people have safety concerns about nuclear power. Nuclear waste from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident is stored at the INL site. That incident was followed by the Chernobyl disaster in what is now Ukraine in 1986 and then the tidal wave-caused Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.
“Everyone understands it when you have historic events that have created major problems,” Granholm said. “But the testing regime that has been demonstrated at INL and the regulatory regime that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has set up is the gold standard. People need to know how much time and effort has gone into making these technologies safe.”
She also said the department was working on what to do with nuclear waste, as the nation has no long-term storage for spent nuclear fuel. Granholm said a component of that effort is consent-based siting for a repository.
Idaho in the 1990s appeared to be on its way to becoming the nation's nuclear waste dump until a series of federal lawsuits led to a 1995 settlement agreement between Idaho and the Energy Department limiting nuclear waste coming into the state. Idaho is currently preventing the Energy Department from bringing in research quantities of spent nuclear fuel because the department has failed, due to technical challenges, to meet a component of the 1995 settlement agreement requiring the department treat 900,000 gallons (3.4 million liters) of radioactive liquid waste that sits above a giant aquifer that supplies water to cities and farms in the region.
Granholm on Wednesday said the department is committed to meeting its obligations under the agreement.
Besides nuclear research, the lab also researches other energy sources such as geothermal and hydrogen. The lab also has a significant cybersecurity component in its Cybercore Integration Center that Granholm also toured.
“Cybersecurity is important for a whole variety of technologies, but in my column I'm really interested in cybersecurity of the (power) grid and obviously any system connected to the grid,” Granholm said.
Simpson said cybersecurity is the fastest growing budget item at the INL because it does work with the U.S. Department of Defense, Homeland Security and other agencies.
“Cyberattacks on this country are numerous, and the better we can protect ourselves beforehand and anticipate them, the better off we are,” he said.