$1.6B Navy nuke fuel facility wins approval

A drawing shows the new $1.65 billion spent fuel facility slated to be built at the Naval Reactors Facility, east of Idaho Falls. It will replace the Expended Core Facility, in use since 1957.

Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers such as the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, front, and the USS George H.W. Bush, send their spent nuclear fuel to eastern Idaho, to be processed, studied and stored at the Naval Reactors Facility. A new $1.65 billion facility has been approved for construction to continue taking in the fuel from a new fleet of aircraft carriers and submarines over the next 50 years.

The Navy and U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday they are moving forward with construction of a $1.65 billion eastern Idaho facility that will accept spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers over the next 50 years.

The structure will go on the northeast side of the existing Naval Reactors Facility property, which is located on the DOE’s desert site in Butte County, about 50 miles west of Idaho Falls. Site preparation will begin late next year, with construction starting in early 2019 and completion expected in late 2024, said Naval Reactors spokesman Don Dahl.

The project will replace the Expended Core Facility, in use since Navy fuel began traveling to the Idaho site in the late 1950s from shipyards around the country. Navy and DOE officials preferred building a new facility, but in environmental documents they also examined the impacts of overhauling the current facility, or leaving it as-is.

Adm. James F. Caldwell, Jr., the director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion program, signed a record of decision approving the new facility last month, and the decision was published Tuesday in the Federal Register. Senior Navy officials traveled to Idaho Falls and elsewhere around the state more than a year ago to pitch the project to stakeholders and hold public meetings.

The Navy and DOE considered environmental impacts of the new facility and addressed public comments, which were submitted last year. Many of the 33 comments included in the environmental statement were supportive of the project. However, several expressed general concern that Navy fuel — made up of highly enriched uranium — would continue being shipped by rail to Idaho and stored over the East Snake Plain Aquifer for decades to come.

In a letter sent to the Navy last month, the Environmental Protection Agency said it initially had concerns with the draft project proposal. But the final environmental impact statement addressed those issues, the EPA wrote, by offering clarifying information on impacts of climate change, and changes to the facility construction plan that would reduce emissions and conserve energy.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality also supported the project, saying in a public comment letter last year that a new facility is the best option to be “protective of public health and the environment.” Susan Burke, DEQ’s Idaho National Laboratory oversight coordinator, said Tuesday she had no concerns as the project moves forward.

Beatrice Brailsford, nuclear program director for the watchdog group Snake River Alliance, said she recognizes the need for the new facility. But she said she and others will be watching closely to ensure the spent fuel shipped to Idaho is “stored as safely as possible,” and the amount sent to Idaho doesn’t violate the 1995 Settlement Agreement, which limits how much spent fuel the Navy cantake in and store.

The NRF has 32 metric tons of spent fuel, and continues to take in between a half-ton and two tons of the radioactive material each year. Under the Settlement Agreement, after 2035 the Navy is allowed to have no more than 9 metric tons of spent fuel in storage at any one time. The rest must be sent to an interim storage facility or geologic repository — neither of which yet exist, and could take decades to complete.

The NRF is the Navy’s only facility that can process and store spent fuel coming from the nation’s 81 nuclear-powered warships, which officials say makes the new facility crucial to ensuring the nation’s fleet can continue operating.

The Navy continues to work on the next-generation Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. New submarines also are under construction. The new warships will produce spent fuel for at least another 50 years.

The facility will be able to accept a new type of spent fuel shipping container, and it will contain a larger water pool to cool the radioactive material. Construction is expected to cost roughly $500 million, with the rest going to design, equipment costs and a management reserve, according to Navy officials.

The project would create as many as 360 construction jobs. Once the facility is complete, there would be about 60 fewer people working at NRF because the new facility would be more efficient. Roughly 1,300 people currently work at NRF.

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth