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INL to focus on partnerships with private companies as new ‘National Reactor Innovation Center’


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Idaho Sen. Jim Risch speaks to reporters during a news conference at INL.

IDAHO FALLS — The Idaho National Laboratory is about to become a more friendly place for private-sector nuclear technology developers — hopefully for decades to come.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the National Reactor Innovation Center would be housed at the INL. The center isn’t so much a physical location, as it is an initiative, which brings private sector technology companies and government researchers together to build and test nuclear reactors. The ultimate goal of the partnership is to improve the speed of licensing and commercialization of new nuclear technologies.

“Bringing together the private sector and the laboratory together as part of the NRIC is a logical extension of what we’ve already been doing in helping the advanced reactor community mature their ideas,” INL Director Mark Peters said during a news conference. “Now (these companies) are ready for the next steps to demonstrate their concepts and get first of the kind deployments in the US and aboard.”

Peters spoke at the news conference alongside Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Sen. Jim Risch and Robert Boston, a DOE spokesman.

Peters said the process is already underway with companies like NuScale and UAMPS (Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems), which are working with INL to build and test a dozen small modular nuclear reactors in eastern Idaho.

“It’s hard to put an exact number on the amount of reactors that will be demonstrated here,” Peters said. “We’re talking to a lot of companies who have approached the laboratory and the department. I think there are a lot of interested players out there in the nuclear energy space.”

Peters said the partnerships, which will occur over decades, could potentially create many job opportunities in eastern Idaho. He said the small modular reactor project is estimated to bring around 1,000 construction jobs to the area, and at least a couple hundred permanent jobs afterward. And that’s just the first partnership, he said.

NRIC was made possible through legislation spearheaded by Risch and Crapo. The 2018 Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act eliminated many of the financial and technical barriers that stood in the way of nuclear innovation in the United States. The law directs the DOE to work directly with private developers to demonstrate new reactor designs and help provide proof-of-concept for ideas they have been working on.

“It’s been years since we’ve built a new commercial reactor in the United States. Part of that has been economics and part of that has been the regulatory environment,” Crapo said. “Solving that has been trying to figure out how to take the phenomenal experience we have in America and right here in Idaho to help open up these opportunities again and help the United States stay in a leadership role in the development and advancement of nuclear energy.”

A House budget proposal has allocated about $5 million to NRIC with the goal of demonstrating small modular reactors and micro-reactors within the next five years, according to an INL news release.

“NRIC will enable the demonstration and deployment of advanced reactors that will define the future of nuclear energy,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said in the release. “By bringing industry together with our national labs and university partners we can enhance our energy independence and position the U.S. as a global leader in advanced nuclear operations.”

The announcement of NRIC comes as the laboratory celebrates its 70th anniversary. When it was founded in 1949, the then-Nuclear Reactor Testing Station oversaw the first usable electricity generated using nuclear fission.

Risch said Wednesday’s announcement marks another historic milestone for the INL in the continued development of nuclear energy in the United States.

“It’s fortuitous that this particular milestone is being announced here on the 70th anniversary,” Risch said. “It will become part of the history of the national lab and when they have the hundredth anniversary… they will no doubt talk about this particular milestone.”