IDAHO FALLS – The Idaho National Laboratory is waiting for a green light to begin producing plutonium that would supply battery power for NASA spacecraft.
Later this month the Department of Energy is expected to release an environmental study on a plan to consolidate plutonium-238 production across the nation at the Idaho site.
The project has other applications besides providing voltage on the far side of Mercury. The batteries could run surveillance equipment in more remote – but still earthly – locations where access may be limited for long periods of time.
Also this summer, the INL will hear whether the Naval Reactors Facility will be selected to design and eventually manufacture small nuclear reactors that could propel spacecraft – not just supply on-board electricity.
The manned mission to Mars may even be in Idaho’s future, said Harold McFarlane, an INL deputy associate laboratory director, at a news conference last week.
The changes are coming quickly after the Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Energy Alliance took over operations at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in February.
Battelle was awarded the 10-year, $4.8 billion contract in 2004 when the organization outbid Bechtel and three other bidders.
Battelle’s first priority has been to combine the INL and Argonne laboratory programs into a world-class nuclear energy research and development effort. The site is designated as the government’s lead institution for nuclear energy research.
Meanwhile, the INL is attracting other programs to eastern Idaho. The Center for Space Research is a university-organized group that will be affiliated with INL and its new Center for Advanced Energy Studies.
And the Department of Energy also wants to move its plutonium pellet manufacturing program from Los Alamos, N.M., to INL into a proposed $200 million-plus facility.
Planning for the new programs has raised local concerns about the potential for exposure to plutonium-238 and nuclear waste materials.
The Centers for Disease Control found elevated levels of plutonium around the Los Alamos laboratory and in non-employees living nearby.
John Kotek, deputy manager of the DOE-Idaho office, said the department is looking at those incidents.
“We think this is well within our experience to operate safely,” Kotek said.
But in addition to health risks, Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, a watchdog group, is concerned about the missions from a national security perspective.
He said plutonium is still available from Russia for use in non-national security missions, he said. But if the INL produces it for military use, it could become a target.
“People in Idaho do not want the site tied to these missions,” Maxand said.
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