Department of Energy's nuclear lab's future may be impacted by Japan

A successful reactor test in Idaho in 1986 made international news and appeared to put the nuclear industry on the comeback trail after the 1979 Three Mile Island partial meltdown.

A few weeks later Chernobyl melted down in the Soviet Union and no new reactor has been built in the United States since. History appears to be repeating itself with the nuclear emergency in Japan.

With its history of nuclear energy research, the impact of the disaster on the Idaho National Laboratory remains uncertain. It also could affect the future of Areva’s $3.3 billion uranium enrichment plant near Idaho Falls.

“It appears that their market just shrunk,” said Liz Woodruff, director of the Snake River Alliance, which opposes Areva’s plant and nuclear development.

Three Mile Island has dominated the American psyche regarding nuclear power since the accident near Harrisburg, Pa. The INL, long the home of nuclear safety testing in the United States, stores the melted core of that reactor and conducted research on the accident in the 1980s.

The Loss of Fluid Test reactor, one of more than 50 nuclear reactors built on the Delaware-sized nuclear reservation near Arco, was melted down in 1985 on purpose to re-enact the Three Mile Island accident. When the scientists and engineers successfully melted the small reactor core, they popped the corks on champagne to celebrate.

On April 3, 1986, nuclear scientists from around the world came to the INL to witness a test of a new reactor. The Integral Fast Reactor, invented by Idaho Falls physicist Charles Till, was designed not only to turn itself off and cool itself down, but also to burn much of its nuclear waste and create more fuel than it used.

When Argonne workers shut off the coolant pumps, a relief valve opened with a loud crack, scaring the visitors in the control room. But the demonstration worked perfectly. The reactor shut itself down without incident.

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