A peculiar procurement by INL

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

The Idaho National Laboratory is accepting new projects at the advanced test reactor complex in part because of an item purchased on Amazon.com.

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The INL ordered a cable that’s a critical part of a neutron level meter. The meter is essential for judging reactor power. Neutrons are a key parameter, because the neutrons and the power are directly proportional.

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It is the B channel in the log meter, meaning it is the fail-safe for the A channel that performs the same function. It’s necessary to comply with regulations placed on this nuclear reactor. There is also an additional meter on top of the A and B channels. That additional meter displays the current power but it does not record the trend, and knowing if the reactor is trending up or down is important for the operation.

The example Sean O’Kelly Associate Laboratory Director for the INL Advanced Test Reactor used was of a car’s speedometer. “Seatbelts are safety functions you can’t operate your car without them,” he said. “You can get by without a speedometer but if the law requires you to have one you must have one.”

And the car analogy also works for why they went on Amazon to find the part. “It’s like an old car, and finding parts just isn’t as easy as it used to be,” O’Kelly said. The part is no longer manufactured, and building one internally would be expensive, so they went online.

“It’s not typical. It’s a non-traditional supply source,” he said. “But in this case, I’ll give the engineer credit for being very resourceful and innovative in finding a product that saved us money and saved the taxpayer money and got us back into operation very quickly.”

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There are two reactors in the ATR complex: One is small, one is large. This part comes from the small reactor, a place they use to test measurements and parameters before placing experiments in the big reactor. “Before we put anything into the big reactor (ATR) we put it into ATRC and verify their performance is as expected,” O’Kelly said.

Without the ATRC, some work could still be done. Experiments that have already taken place in the past or are almost identical could continue, but it would curtail new experiments or significant modifications to old experiments.

And those new experiments are vital. In a recent report by the National Energy Advisory Committee INL Director Mark Peters highlighted the need.

“INL clearly needs to be an engineering laboratory in the modern sense, one that values the synergies between science and engineering,” he wrote. “The danger is that INL be pigeon-holed as a place where work is done rather than a true innovator. It is critically important that INL build up its scientific credentials without sacrificing its unique identity.”

The report pointed to collaboration with private and public institutions on research as critical for the INL’s future — research that has a good chance of going through the ATRC.

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Presentations dating back more than a decade have highlighted the ATRC control console, and this log count rate meter specifically, for replacement and modernization. “I think in the next couple of years we will replace the whole system that the cable fits into, that paper chart recorder is 1960 1957 technology,” O’Kelly said. “We’re going to be replacing that technology with something modern and brand new.”

But in the meantime, the engineers are doing what they can to keep the 50-year-old complex up and running, and they’re doing it up to code and as cost effectively as possible. O’Kelly added parts have to be “evaluated and physically examined and verified that it would meet its performance requirements before it was installed.”

And $12.75 sounds like an incredibly efficient use of funds to keep a nuclear reactor up and running, but Idaho Reports, being the fiscal watchdogs that we are, would like to point out they could have saved an additional $7.48 on shipping if they were Amazon Prime members… something to think about for the future.

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