Features

Nuclear Idaho

Hot times in the home of atomic energy

by

6 comments

In 1955 Charles Pieper was in his early 30s, a veteran of the Pacific theater in World War II and working near his hometown of Arco at the then 6-year-old National Reactor Testing Station, now known as the Idaho National Laboratory.

A graduate of U.S. Navy electrical schools in St. Louis, Mo., and Norfolk, Va., Pieper had begun work at the nearby Naval Proving Ground soon after two atomic bombs detonated over Japan and ended the war, sending him home. During his time there, he rose to a leading position on the electrical crew and was working with the testing station's contractor, Phillips Petroleum.

It was an exciting time to work on the desolate scrub between Arco and Idaho Falls. The same bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 ushered in a fantastical new realm of science that was being developed--largely in secret--for peacetime use. It was the dawn of the Atomic Age and optimism ran high.

As one government newsreel of the period heroically put it, the testing station in the desert was "home of half a dozen major technical plants where scientists and engineers are studying ways of putting the atom to work for mankind."

For Pieper, though, most of what he did was "just another job," maintaining electrical systems and transmission lines.

One summer day in '55 his crew received an order to take the power generated from the Boiling Water Reactor III (nicknamed "Borax") and transfer it onto the lines to power the city of Arco.

It was to be the first time that an entire city would be powered with atomic energy--an international showcase for America's newfound nuclear mastery.

"I don't think we really realized what we were doing at the time--the significance of the occasion," said Pieper, who at age 88 still lives part-time in Arco.

It wasn't an easy job, though.

With a crowd of onlookers eager to witness the dawning of a new epoch, the crew closed the circuit for the first time on or around July 14.

Nothing happened.

Scrambling to fix the problem on the second night, the system failed again.

"They tried different methods. There wasn't anything wrong with the power, it was just those long transmission lines; we couldn't get enough voltage to push them through," Pieper said, recalling that on that second night his crew went out to check the lines and found that several poles had broken down.

"Broke the cross-poles right down, the lines were shakin' so bad. It took us all night to get them back up," he said.

By then most all the history-gawkers had gone home, and during that time Pieper's immediate supervisor had died of a heart attack, making Pieper the lead man on a crew that numbered 10 or 12 by July 17, the third day of attempts to light Arco with the brilliance of nuclear power.

Finally, a new electrical engineer was assigned to the job--John Yeates, who still lives in Idaho Falls--and he directed the installation of new transformers that everyone on site hoped would be up to the job.

With the new transformers in place and all the transmission lines repaired, it was time for one more try. It fell to Pieper, as lead man, to close the circuit. Suddenly, about 20 miles away, the lights in the little town of Arco winked on. History had finally been made.

As that same government newsreel triumphantly proclaimed: "On July 17, 1955, this new type of power reactor supplied city-wide the kind of energy which will someday power man's factories, cook his meals and in many other ways make his life richer and fuller in a peaceful world."

Pieper would stay on the job at the site until January 1981 ("I used to tell people I was born out there, and they built a fence around me," he joked), but that night on July 17 was a high point--although only in retrospect.

"After it started to hit the newspapers and we found out President Eisenhower was trying to spring that on the Russians and waiting to hear the success of it--after that we found out how significant it really was," Pieper said. "Up until then it was just another job."

Next-gen nuke boosters

Though Arco was only bathed in nuclear-powered light for a short time, July 17 is still celebrated in the town of 1,200 with the annual Atomic Days holiday--complete with a rodeo, parade, sports tournaments, arts and crafts, and a car show. A sign above the Arco Chamber of Commerce--which doubles as the city offices--proudly declares in all caps: "THE FIRST CITY IN THE WORLD TO BE LIT BY ATOMIC POWER."

Nuclear science and energy is certainly one of the biggest players in Southeastern Idaho, if not the biggest. The Idaho National Laboratory, with about 4,100 employees, is one of the largest employers in the state and has remained the U.S. Department of Energy's lead nuclear research center--pioneering most or all of the technologies that harness "the atom to work for mankind." That includes giving birth to the nuclear navy.

Retired Vice Adm. John Grossenbacher is the current laboratory director at INL, president of lab operator Battelle Energy Alliance and served from 2000-2003 as commanding officer of the U.S. Navy Submarine Force.

His passion for all things nuclear is palpable, even over the phone.

"The history of nuclear energy for civilian use and for ship propulsion was technically written here in Idaho," he told Boise Weekly. "The past [in Idaho] is one of profound importance for the history of nuclear energy worldwide."

Public information officer Lou Riepl, who heads INL's Boise office, put an even finer point on it.

"This is literally where it all began," he said, referring to the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 (EBR-1), which preceded Borax in lighting a string of light bulbs, first proving that usable amounts of power could be generated from the atom.

"The next reactor that was built on site--the Materials Test Reactor--was an absolutely amazing machine," he added. "Basically because of what was learned in building and operating that, the operating basis of every other reactor in this country owes its heritage, owes its lineage to that reactor."

Today INL builds on its history by researching new reactor technologies like high-temperature gas reactors that are cooled by helium rather than water; smaller, cheaper modular reactors that can be rolled out en masse from factories; and ways to improve and extend the lives of the 104 nuclear plants that currently supply 20 percent of the country's energy.

That's not to mention the work the lab does in nuclear medicine--the science behind things like cancer-fighting isotopes, MRI scanners and X-rays--alternative forms of energy and various projects for the Department of Homeland Security.

"It's a very exciting time at the lab," Grossenbacher said.

And that's not just because of the science. According to INL figures, the lab experienced 9 percent growth from 2008-2009 and saw a business volume of $870 million.

INL's payroll is somewhere around $300 million, and its technologies have spun off more than 40 companies in the past 13 years. Combine that with the millions it funnels into K-12 education and the state's universities--the latter of which are collaborators in the Center for Advanced Energy Resources--and according to Grossenbacher, "the economic benefits to the state are significant and long term.

"In a way, you can view the Idaho National Laboratory as the clean energy, heavy industry in Idaho," he added. "I don't think that's too far off base."

Meanwhile, the French-owned energy giant Areva is navigating the environmental assessment process to build its proposed $3.3 billion Eagle Rock Uranium Enrichment facility outside Idaho Falls. The draft environmental impact statement passed muster with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in August, and if given final approval, the plant will employ about 1,000 workers over 10 years of construction, provide a substantial boost to the state's tax revenue and become a major supplier of fuel to reactors that Grossenbacher and other nuclear boosters say will crop up as part of a "nuclear renaissance."

"There is a renaissance, a rebirth, of nuclear energy, and the lab is actively engaged in leading that," Grossenbacher said. "I don't think that it's even arguable that it's happening worldwide."

According to Lane Allgood, a 17-year veteran of the INL public information office and founder of the Partnership for Science and Technology, China has more than 20 plants under construction with another 23 or so on order. At the same time, Russia has 10 reactors under construction and 14 on order, and India has four plants in the works with 20 on order.

One of the first to lobby for Areva's entry into Idaho, Allgood said international growth in nuclear energy also means that Idaho may become a major player in the world's uranium enrichment industry.

"I actually think [the nuclear renaissance] is for real," he said. "The NRC has, I believe, 18 license applications calling for 13 plantsĀ­--that's a pretty good start. The president has put in his budget more money for loan guarantees for nuclear plants, and I think it is going to happen. Even if it is slower in our country, the rest of the world is going full tilt."

Nuclear relapse

Even a single new reactor in the United States would be a departure from the norm--no new plants have been ordered since the waning days of the Carter administration in 1979, and the last plant went on line in 1996.

Factors like multi-billion-dollar capital costs, a years-long licensing process and market uncertainty over carbon-control legislation that could make nuclear power--with its high energy yield and smaller carbon footprint--more attractive to investors have acted to tamp down atomic ardor. And that's not to mention a lingering public aversion to the radiological waste nuclear plants produce.

While Allgood said concerns about climate change and the potential boon of federal support are reenergizing the nuclear business, environmental watchdog groups like Idaho's Snake River Alliance don't buy it. They say the "renaissance" is more like a "nuclear relapse."

"If we're proposing nuclear energy as this false solution for climate change, let's look at the timeline realistically: Climate scientists are giving us five years before we reach a place where we can't turn back. It takes 10 to 15 years to build a reactor," said SRA Executive Director Andrea Shipley.

"At the same time, the reality is that we're bringing in an industry for uranium enrichment when we know that we can actually meet the need for uranium enrichment currently for the 104 currently operating reactors--many of which are due to be decommissioned," she added. "Here we have the state and federal government throwing out the tax freebie carpet, looking toward an industry that has not proved it's ready for growth."

Beatrice Brailsford, who serves as program director for SRA out of Pocatello, said that the nuclear industry has had decades to prove itself, but still "has never gotten its feet on the ground except when taxpayers bolster it."

While it's true that renewable resources like wind, solar and geothermal are also heavily dependent on tax incentives and other government support, Brailsford said "the public [tax] support for renewables is not anything like the same scale as the support for nuclear power."

The subsidy argument comes up frequently when talking about energy--all forms are subsidized to some degree--but the problem is figuring out what makes a subsidy. Even the U.S. Energy Information Administration wrote in a 2008 report that "there is no universally accepted definition of subsidy."

Nonetheless, a 2007 report from Earth Track conducted on behalf of the international policy group Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development put the overall energy subsidy total at $49 billion to $100 billion per year, with fossil fuels accounting for two-thirds of the total, nuclear nabbing 12.4 percent, ethanol 7.6 percent, renewables another 7.5 percent and conservation 2.1 percent. Miscellaneous energy types made up the final 4.2 percent.

With climate-protection legislation working its way through Congress, hundreds of billions of dollars could be flowing toward energy research and generation--including, to a large degree, nuclear power.

For instance, the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, passed by the Senate Energy Committee, would throw $5.2 billion at nuclear energy research, demonstration projects and commercial application--including a commission to study nuclear waste disposal--and establish a tax-exempt "Green Bank" capitalized with an initial $10 billion to support a range of clean energy projects, including nuclear.

The American Power Act of 2010, introduced by Sens. John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Joe Liebermann, a Connecticut Independent, would create $54 billion in loan guarantees and tax credits for nuclear power as well as streamline the licensing process.

In the House, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, and Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, would authorize $100 billion over 10 years to a range of energy projects and places nuclear development among its priorities.

According to the pro-industry Nuclear Energy Institute, provisions in the House bill allow for a 150 percent increase in the amount of nuclear power generation by 2050, amounting to 180 new nuclear plants. The American Power Act suggests 253 gigawatts of nuclear capacity will be needed in the next 40 years, totaling about 181 new reactors.

Here in Idaho, Areva was approved by the DOE for a $2 billion loan guarantee in May--a sum that will cover a large portion of its estimated $3.3 billion price tag.

While renewables and energy efficiency would also make out with a hefty chunk of change, the robust support for nuclear power reflects President Barack Obama's budget priorities, which call for tripling the loan guarantee for new projects to $54.5 billion.

"I'm not one of those people who does not think there's a role for government to play in encouraging efforts that will go to benefit us all," Brailsford said. "But nuclear power has had decades of that ... and nuclear power is just too slow and too expensive to be a reasonable response to some of the problems we're having."

The prevailing argument among proponents is that rising energy needs coupled with the long-term cost savings and carbon-light output of nuclear energy makes it an attractive alternative. With carbon cap and trade provisions included in the current legislation, boosters also say that nuclear power will finally become attractive to private investors.

"If we are serious about greenhouse issues and the fact that our need for electricity and power is going to double in the next 30 years, we're just not going to get it done with alternative sources and conservation, as some people would like to believe," Allgood said. "We have to have some more nuclear plants."

Plus, as Grossenbacher said, when you're married to a reactor, it's often for life. "You're building an essentially 100-year piece of energy infrastructure," he said.

Payette: Nuke Town, USA

The debate over which is ultimately "cheaper" or the recipient of more government largesse--nuclear or renewables--is a circuitous subject fraught with labyrinthine interpretations and caveats on both sides.

But one thing is clear: despite the fact that it is the cradle of nuclear power, Idaho has never hosted a commercial nuclear reactor. According to Grossenbacher, the reasons for that are obvious: too much cheap hydroelectric power and not enough energy demand.

"If we wanted to build one here we could, but there hasn't been commercial nuclear plants in this region for economic reasons," he said.

"We've never really had to generate that much electricity for the state," Allgood agreed. "Hydroelectric has been cheap enough."

Still, he is hopeful that nuclear development will someday take place in the state.

"We would have to find a utility or a business that has the interest in building a commercial reactor," he said. "Reactors, the truth of the matter is, use a lot of water. We'd have to find somewhere that water is plentiful. I'm sure there are some places in the state that would work, but still there's got to be a reason to build one.

"I would like to see some people come to Idaho and do a serious search of the opportunities or possibility, but that's going to have to be something on the commercial grade," he added.

In 2007, billionaire investor and energy magnate Warren Buffett considered bringing a 1,750 megawatt nuclear plant to Payette but ultimately backed away from the concept because the economics didn't pencil out.

"It would have to be somebody like that," Allgood said.

In the years following Buffet's exit, there has been another nuclear developer fronting a reactor complex in Southwestern Idaho.

Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., a startup helmed by Don Gillispie, a hard-charging entrepreneur from Virginia, first approached Owyhee County about its proposed 1,700 megawatt Idaho Energy Complex around the time that Buffet's goliath Mid American was stepping back from the state.

After some initial forays into gaining county approval, AEHI decided to pull the plug on its Owyhee proposal after discovering fault lines at its preferred site. But rather than abandon the idea, the company moved its project east to Elmore County.

The plan there got bogged down in the process, first when its application for an amendment to the county's comprehensive plan was shot down by Planning and Zoning, and later when its request was reconsidered and ping-ponged back and forth between the Elmore County Commission and P&Z.

What followed was a series of rancorous public meetings, a war of press releases between the company and the Snake River Alliance, a defamation suit filed by AEHI against SRA that was ultimately dismissed and a delay that dragged on for about two years.

"It was a pretty highly explosive issue, for and against," said Connie Cruser, chairwoman of the Elmore County Commission. "We got lots of opinions and a lot of it on both sides. We got a lot of misinformation from both sides, too."

Cruser said a substantial agriculture group was opposed to the plan, but many were in support of the project because of its boon to the job market and county tax base.

"You really just have to weigh it out," she said. "I know people think it's so easy to say 'yes' or 'no' to something. It's not."

By the time commissioners ultimately voted not to amend the comprehensive plan, the company had already shifted its attention to Payette County--to a 5,000-acre parcel not far from where Buffet had dipped his toe.

That was almost a year ago, and since then the Payette County Commission has voted to amend its comprehensive plan to make way for a potential rezone--located in the hills north of Payette--and is putting AEHI's proposal through a series of technical reviews.

Once the reviews are finished, the plan, which calls for a facility that would cost between $9 billion and $10 billion, could head to Planning and Zoning for consideration.

"We feel like we're in a good spot because [the commission has] been extremely supportive of what we're doing," said AEHI Public Relations Director Dan Hamilton. "We feel very confident that things will move forward for us well there ... We could potentially have this thing [the technical review and P&Z ruling] wrapped up by the end of the year."

That sounds optimistic to the Snake River Alliance, which has doggedly opposed AEHI's plan wherever the company has relocated it.

The group has hammered the company's finances in particular, claiming there's no way a startup could possibly raise the billions of dollars necessary to construct the plant. It has also been critical of AEHI's claims that it would bring more than 5,000 jobs to the area, taken issue with myriad basic technical issues including water usage and on-site waste storage, and its lack of a chosen reactor type.

"They still, after shopping it around for three years in three counties, have not chosen a reactor type," said SRA's Shipley. "They have no funding in place, and they have said they will not rely on any federal subsidies to finance this plant."

Listed on the Over-The-Counter Bulletin Board--an exchange for lightly traded and not especially stable stocks--AEHI's finances have also drawn the attention of exchange trackers, including a recent profile on thestreetsweeper.org ("Alternate Energy: Power Stock or Toxic Waste?" Oct. 4) that characterized the company as flimsy at best and downright shady at worst.

Hamilton dismissed the piece as "muckraking stuff that you would expect from the National Enquirer," and said that big things are on the horizon. Indeed, in early September AEHI issued a press release announcing it would forego a planned reverse stock split--a tactic used to limit available shares and thus increase the price per share--because "milestone events in the near future" would be more than enough to boost the stock "to the major exchange."

"I think you're going to find in the coming weeks or months that you're going to hear something," Hamilton said.

Though he wouldn't go into detail ahead of "ongoing negotiations," Hamilton alluded to one funding project that would leverage $100 million to $150 million in investor money to purchase water rights and land, and pay for the NRC application. Following permitting and NRC approval, he said, the property value would likely increase to $1.5 billion, which could be used as an asset to attract outside investment.

"We've already been in contact with several large financial institutions related to that goal," Hamilton said.

Still, Shipley simply doesn't believe the project is feasible.

"We could issue a press release that says, 'Snake River Alliance no longer takes AEHI seriously and gives up their campaign.' We've talked about that," she said, comparing the company with what she considered more reputable firms like Mid American and Areva.

"With Areva it's different. Are we going to win? We have to try," Shipley said.

Hamilton said criticism of AEHI's proposal is a combination of anti-nuclear zealotry and a misunderstanding of how publicly traded companies secure funding for large projects.

"Up until now, the only companies who build or are building nuclear plants are utilities. Nobody seems to blink an eye about them raising money because they're going to raise money from the ratepayer or go after municipal bonds to pay for something like this. We consider ourselves in a much better position than they are because we can go for money they can't," he said.

"For us it's not an issue, the financing will come," he added. "And why would we even go after financing for a project that doesn't exist yet?"

Larry Church, chairman of the Payette County Commission, was tight-lipped about the project but said testimony at the April hearing, when the county voted to change is comprehensive plan, seemed "3-to-1 in favor of it."

"We voted unanimously to change the comp plan," he said. "It's, you know, against state code to be discussing our feeling beforehand one way or the other. I can't discuss that part of it ... But I suppose there's some positive and negatives to any big company that would come in."

Among those negatives, he said, were the effects on roads and school crowding. Positives include a "considerable increase to our property tax base" and an influx of jobs.

None of that convinces Jeff Weber, who lives and operates Fetch This Kennels on a property within the 5,000 acres marked for the project. As the closest neighbor to the project, Weber said, "Of course I'm very opposed to it, for many different reasons. I'm the outspoken ass hole, according to them."

Weber doesn't have anything against nuclear power. His concern is for the area's agricultural way of life, and he doesn't believe the hype about the economic benefits.

"[Gillispie] has got everybody snowballed, getting everybody convinced that they're going to make a million dollars," he said, adding that safety is also a concern--and not just because it would be a nuclear plant.

"You can't hardly trust anything the government manages," Weber said. "Look at the oil spill--that was supposed to be overseen and totally foolproof. The same kind of stuff can happen with a nuclear plant."

Want not, waste not

Looking to the future, one thing both industry boosters and opponents agreed on was that something has to be done about the byproducts of nuclear energy. The Idaho Cleanup Project at INL has been ongoing for years, cost hundreds of millions of dollars and will continue for years to come. Decades of storing waste from bomb manufacturing at other facilities during the Cold War have made a mess that has done much to erode public confidence in anything nuclear. That's not to mention the perennial controversy of Idaho's longtime deal with the Navy to store spent nuclear fuel rods in the state.

The government's decision to scrap a massive radioactive waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has left many waiting for of guidance. It is expected to come ultimately from a blue ribbon commission established by President Obama and headed up by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

"The issue of used fuel and the disposition of used fuel is a concern in a lot of people's minds," Grossenbacher said. "We're all waiting to see what the blue ribbon commission recommends."

That's cold comfort for Shipley, whose organization came into existence out of a desire to protect the Snake River Aquifer from radioactive contamination.

"We can talk about this in a lot of different ways, but the fact is that in 50 years we haven't figured out how to deal with the waste other than: 'Who don't we like enough to send this to?'" she said.

Grossenbacher's perspective is that storing spent fuel is not technically difficult or "extraordinarily expensive." Plus, technology is being developed to re-use much of the spent fuel that is currently in storage.

"Is [spent fuel] a factor? You bet. But so is the cost, risk and environmental impacts of carbon," Grossenbacher said. "In the right concept of time it's not a show stopper ... there's no free lunch when it comes to energy."

There's also no single solution to rising energy demand, as Idaho Energy Czar Paul Kjellander repeats. With all the barriers to nuclear power, he said the priority is on speed of delivery, cost and the reduction of carbon.

"I think the general message is there is no single silver bullet on the energy front. You have to have a complete and totally integrated resource plan," said Kjellander, who serves as administrator of the Idaho Office of Energy Resources. "Right now that would appear to be natural gas for baseload resources and renewable resources--including energy efficiency--that can be built relatively quickly."

In other words, the time for nuclear power in Idaho is still a long way off, but with resources like INL and Areva, Kjellander hopes that it will one day play a part.

"I would love to see things done tomorrow, sure, but you've got to be pragmatic," he said. "If it's worth having, it's worth waiting for. But it's still going to be sooner than we think. The closest thing to a crystal ball I have is the rearview mirror in my car and those magic words: 'object in mirror closer than it appears.'"

That still leaves the issue of waste, and Kjellander recognizes the anxiety it creates in the public mind. He turns hopefully to work being done at the lab to mitigate the problem.

"To have the lab here to help move that issue forward is very critical," he said.

For Charles Pieper, looking back on nuclear power's infancy, the Atomic Age didn't quite pan out the way he and others might have envisioned it. And again, he said, waste got in the way.

"I fully expected planes, trains, all transportation to be nuclear. I think it's going to have to have a future, but the only thing I can see standing in the way is the disposal of the radioactive waste," he said, acknowledging that to some degree, the sins of the past have tarnished the atomic dream.

"When this first started, we'd just take the radioactive waste out there, dig a hole in the desert and dump it," he said. "We didn't really know better. They thought you just buried it, and it went away; it don't go away."

Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Add a comment
 

Add a comment

Note: Comments are limited to 200 words.