Local 652 Members Play Key Role In Overhaul of Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory

About 150 USW-represented workers were involved in the rare 11-month overhaul of Idaho National Laboratory’s Advanced Test Reactor. More than 500 employees at the site engaged in the project.

“USW members did the overhaul work and worked with engineering, management and operations,” said Brian Anderson, Local 652 unit president of the nuclear energy side of Idaho National Laboratory (INL). “Our folks were the heart of the operation. It was really a team effort from the INL director to the USW workers, and all the front-line supervisors were former USW-represented employees.”

Refurbishment of the advanced test reactor began in April 2021, and INL called the process a “core internals changeout.” The outage also allowed for the upgrading and replacement of the reactor’s experimental capabilities and other infrastructure around the plant.

This was the sixth core overhaul of the reactor, which occurs about every 10 years.

It has a one-of-a-kind design and is the world’s largest, most powerful, flexible, highest capacity materials test reactor. It can run multiple tests at the same time, and there is high demand for test slots, with some booked years in advance.

Reactor experiments help test new fuels and materials for advanced reactors that produce less waste and help reduce greenhouse gases. These experiments also help the U.S. nuclear navy, aid NASA’s space exploration, advance life-saving medical treatments and keep commercial nuclear plants operating longer.

USW workers remove experiments in and out of the reactor. “It’s challenging,” Anderson said, “but it’s rewarding because no one else does what we do.”

Advance Planning

A small group began planning for this overhaul in 2012, and developed briefing books for the core internals changeout that linked each detailed operating procedure with photos, drawings and other key information about the specific custom tools, parts and supplies needed for each step of the overhaul process.

These briefing books were important because only 12 USW workers had experience with a core internals changeout. A pipefitter for 23 years at ATR, Anderson worked on one overhaul previously and helped mentor and train workers new to the process. He also coordinated work and inserted himself into the workforce to hear concerns and comments.

To work on the reactor, he said that workers have to be certified on its systems and be knowledgeable about the reactor itself and their trade. It takes intense training to get certified and at least quarterly training to keep up.

The first phase of the overhaul ended with the removal of the 31-ton stainless steel reactor lid on July 1, 2021. After USW mechanics and heavy equipment operators lifted the lid with overhead cranes, they then replaced the reactor’s key internal components that experience wear and tear from regular operation.

Many different union members took part in the overhaul: USW Local 652 represents 27 different classifications, all whom significantly contributed to the success of this almost year-long project.

USW machinists modified the parts going into the reactor, built all the tooling and parts, and worked two years prior to the overhaul to get everything ready for the project. The machinists won the INL director’s annual award for their contribution.

“I think we executed this project in a challenging environment,” Anderson said. “Our members were professional and worked safely. We pooled our talents, thought creatively to overcome resource constraints, made repairs that saved time and money to meet the INL mission, engaged in teamwork and had a mindset that demonstrated commitment to excellence.”

After undergoing safety testing and the calibration of new instruments and sensors, the advanced test reactor began operations in mid-July.

Pictured: USW members worked on the overhaul of the advanced test reactor at Idaho National Laboratory. Photos courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy.

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