Idaho State Journal
Idaho State Journal

INEEL pushes to make long-term mark in Idaho

By Anne Minard
Journal Writer

POCATELLO - Idaho's nuclear lab is still striving to secure a place in long-term nuclear research.

To do so, it's going to have to get smarter, say officials at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

The future course of the Department of Energy's Idaho operations is spelled out in the Institutional Plan, Fiscal Years 2001-2005, recently released to the public. The DOE requires all national laboratories to prepare an institutional plan and update it annually, as a guide for strategic decisions about the laboratory.

Concerns remain at the Snake River Alliance, an Idaho watchdog group, about whether or not there will be adequate funding - especially beginning in 2003 - to clean up buried waste and transport high-level waste from the site.

Steve Hopkins, a spokesman for the alliance, said funding exists over the next several years for studies of how to best handle the waste. But then, according to the plan, the funds dry up, he said.

"We believe we have to convince the political delegation to secure the money," he said. As such, Hopkins and others have begun an advocacy campaign called "Stop the Waste and Clean it Up." The group will be touring southeast Idaho in January, he said.

John Walsh, an INEEL spokesman, acknowledges there are funding issues.

"That's no secret," he said. "It's probably been like that almost every year. There are budget issues, and you have to deal with either real or perceived downfalls."

On the other hand, INEEL officials say the new fiscal plan is the first that truly reflects the vision of the current laboratory. It places emphasis on completing the site's environmental cleanup mission, integrating research and development with operations and building a long-term research and development mission that matches the needs of the DOE.

Also, the INEEL must ensure it has the people with the right technical skills and the facilities and equipment necessary to accomplish its goals, the plan states.

Speaking at a public meeting in Pocatello Monday night, Bernard Meyers, president and general manager of INEEL's contract management company Bechtel BWXT-Idaho, said the site remains a vital part of Idaho's economy.

He said between Bechtel, Argonne National Laboratory-West, the Department of Energy and other entities at and adjacent to the site, "we probably push $1 billion around the state of Idaho." The site is the state's third largest employer, with about 6,600 employees, he said. The site spent an estimated $451 million on environmental cleanup in 2000, and more than $180 on research.

But in order to keep a place at the table in nuclear issues, the lab needs to grow at a rate of two and a half percent per year, he said.

The lab will also need to add 300 new Ph.D.s to its staff over the next five years. They will be needed to replace retiring scientists and to raise the bar on the education levels at the site, he said.

Right now, Meyers said, fewer than five percent of employees at the site hold doctoral degrees. Within the 1,800 or so employees in the site's research and development programs, 12 percent have doctorates, Meyers said.

"We need to get that into the 20 percent range."

Meyers said efforts so far to beef up statewide science programs have led to the hiring of a new professor at the University of Idaho who will teach geophysics, including the way contaminants move underground. Called subsurface science, the field is also the subject of new courses at Idaho State University, Meyers said. Collaborative professional and graduate-level research is also under way at those universities and others to address nuclear waste questions at the site, he said.

In addition, the site is on its way to creating new jobs for southeast Idaho outside the universities, Meyers said.

Early in 2000, Bechtel said it would create 3,000 jobs in the region by 2005. In its first year Bechtel has created 830 new jobs, including about 350 in Pocatello. They include technical and other positions, including several at Chubbuck's Premier Technology Inc.

INEEL Guidlines

Primary directions for the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory outlined in the 2001-2005 Institutional Plan include:

- Science, including establishing the Subsurface Science Initiative to study and understand the behavior of contaminants through the underground.

- Energy resources, including co-leading, with Argonne National Laboratory, the DOE's efforts to develop the next generation of nuclear energy.

"We've built 52 test reactors here. We know what to do with nuclear waste," said Bernard Meyers, president and general manager of INEEL's contract management company, Bechtel BWXT-Idaho. He said although there is opposition to nuclear power in the United States - only one still operates at the INEEL - reactors are being built in many other countries.

"We are the lead lab in trying to establish an international consensus on what those should look like," he said.

The work will also include research and support for the development of fossil energy, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

- National security, including enhancing INEEL capabilities to support counter terrorism and combat the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations.

The Institutional Plan is available to the public on the Internet at www.inel.gov/documents/ip2001. Starting in December, the public will be able to access a web-based questions and answer feature concerning the plan.