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BY Nate Sunderland

On a recent afternoon, John Bumgardner led the way down a cramped, concrete-encased stairwell inside the old Transient Reactor Experiment and Test Facility building at Idaho National Laboratory’s desert site. 

The reactor, known as TREAT, rises high
above the sagebrush west of Idaho Falls. For decades it tested new fuel designs, putting them under extreme stress using high
temperatures and power levels. But it closed in 1994, largely due to a lack of customers. Today, Bumgardner, 58, is charged with breathing new life into this 1959 relic of nuclear history. About three years ago, the Department of Energy declared its desire to resume using the reactor’s unique fuel testing capabilities. The Fukushima, Japan, nuclear accident in 2011 was the trigger for TREAT’s rebirth.
Congress directed DOE to focus its efforts on developing more accident-tolerant nuclear fuels in order to thwart a similar disaster in the U.S. It turned out TREAT already had most of the testing infrastructure in place. Even U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz praised TREAT’s capabilities during an August address in Idaho Falls. “The people who worked at this reactor in the past did a brilliant job,” Bumgardner said. “It has a very low use of uranium, and as a result, the reactor can run for a long time.” 

At the bottom of the stairs, the tall, wispy-haired Bumgardner walked into the subpile room, directly beneath the reactor’s core.
Filled with various pistons and rods, its purpose is to slow or accelerate a nuclear reaction. There’s enough space to step backward and peer up at the ceiling, where several of the 17-foot metal control rods once pumped relentlessly in and out of the core.
Some 360 uranium fuel elements from when the reactor closed in 1994 remain there, in the core. But all is quiet these days. Today, about seven months after work began to restart TREAT, the operating staff is in place and refurbishments are well underway.
About $75 million will be spent on the project. By 2018, if all goes as planned, this subpile room once again will become a whirlwind of
noise and motion — pistons and rods moving so fast they will need to be controlled and monitored by a computer. “In my mind, this is one of the coolest places in this whole reactor,” Bumgardner said.

Talk of resuming transient fuel testing began in 2010, kicking into high gear following Fukushima. But before it could begin any new fuel development, DOE needed to secure a go-to test facility. Before a company can license a new type of reactor fuel, it is required to go through transient testing, simulating harsh
conditions such as those that would occur in a large-scale disaster such as Fukushima. The DOE first conducted a cost-benefit study for all transient testing options. TREAT, largely due to already-existing infrastructure at INL, won out over the Annular Core research Reactor in New Mexico and several other options, officials said. An environmental assessment then was conducted, examining
natural, cultural and socioeconomic effects of a possible restart.
By February, DOE had given INL officials the go-ahead to start waking up the reactor. A strong reaction TREAT is set to become the fourth active nuclear reactor at INL, but not everyone is thrilled about it. Of the 68 written comments on the TREAT environmental assessment document, a majority favor the re-start.

Several local environmental groups, however, voiced their opposition, calling for more public scrutiny and environmental
review. Beatrice Brailsford, of the Snake River Alliance, questioned whether there would be enough demand for the transient testing,
considering the lack of customers in 1994. Others, such as the Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free group, have said additional public vetting should happen before TREAT fires up. “An accident at the TREAT Reactor can, INL admits, have an impact on people who live and work offsite,” wrote Kit DesLauriers of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, “… the most careful and realistic assessment must be done,
and there must be full public participation in the decision to restart.”
As many as 34 tests could be conducted at TREAT per year,  according to environmental documents. But that number might end up being closer to 10, officials have said. “Spending over $900 million on new fuels research at TREAT is typical of the mindset of
an industry that prefers new research over cleanup,” wrote nuclear safety consultant Tami Thatcher, in a January Post Register guest column. 

A comprehensive TREAT renovation was completed in 1988, only six years before it was shuttered. That’s good news for operators today, officials said, because less work will be needed to get it started again. A large reason for that is the craftsmanship that went into each piece of the reactor to begin with, Bumgardner said,
both in the 1950s and 1980s. The reactor’s cooling fans (it’s air-cooled, not water-cooled) still are in great shape, with low operating hours. A filtration system for radioactive material will hardly need to be touched. The entire electrical system was replaced in the ’80s. Even the reactor core itself is good to go. Keith Penny, TREAT plant manager, compares the reactor to a 1959 classic car that was fully restored in the 1980s, and sat untouched inside a garage ever since.
“The design of this machine is unreal,” he said. INL tracked down eight former TREAT employees, hosting them for a “knowledge
transfer meeting” last week, and picking their brains for expertise and advice. Next up: replacing an old computer system (the current one has eight-inch floppy drives), and more inspections. Training for the staff — there eventually will be about 40 full-time employees — also will soon begin. 

DOE wants TREAT to be operational by 2018. It’s the date Moniz reinforced in his August speech. Bumgardner said he and his team are “doing our best to accelerate that.”

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