IDAHO FALLS — It occupies a sprawling 890 square miles in eastern Idaho, giving rise to the world's first production of electricity from nuclear energy.
The idea in 1949 by the military was to establish a premier nuclear energy research facility, build 10 reactors and run them for 15 years to uncover all the knowledge of splitting uranium atoms.
Then, pack up and walk away.
More than 50 nuclear reactors later, the Idaho National Laboratory is the nation's top nuclear research facility for the U.S. Department of Energy, employing thousands of people immersed in research that touches all corners of our lives.
The mysteries of science continue to reveal themselves in a vast research complex that is the birthplace of the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program and home to the world's foremost nuclear materials test reactor.
If you use a cellphone, operate a computer or rely on an energy grid (hint, we all do), the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored research unfolding just 215 miles north of Salt Lake City is quietly designed to make your life better.
The Idaho National Laboratory is intertwined with multiple Utah projects, from helping keep cellphones functional for first responders in a catastrophic emergency to testing the functionality of batteries in electric vehicles.
It is North America's only producer of radioactive, medical grade cobalt-60 used in Gamma Knife radiosurgery, a type of radiation treatment for brain tumors used at facilities like the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.
"I am a little biased, but I think we do some pretty cool science here," said Don Miley, a communications specialist at INL for the Advanced Test Reactor.
In a recent tour, Miley stepped out of his vehicle into the desert at the junction of U.S. 26 and U.S. 20.
In a 50-acre section southwest of this remote intersection, the laboratory's land may someday be home to the nation's first small modular nuclear reactor serving 46 cities and districts in six states, including Utah.
The project is still in the licensing phase of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the first of its kind under such regulatory scrutiny. Proponents say the next generation technology could be game changing in the energy sector, with carbon free power nuclear generation signficantly less risky than traditional nuclear power plants, and incredibly smaller.
While that continues to unfold, here is a glimpse of what is currently playing out in Utah through partnerships with the Idaho National Laboratory:
The Idaho National Laboratory is a partner in Rocky Mountain Power's WestSmart Electric Vehicle corridor project, which aims to make available charging stations on major transportation corridors in the West.
This summer, officials celebrated the completion of the I-15 segment from the southern tip of Utah to its northern boundary. Plans include adding stations to I-80 and I-70, with the immediate next step to put charging stations on the route to the popular recreation destination of Moab.
Rocky Mountain Power received a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Idaho laboratory is an energy department facility that includes a sophisticated electric vehicle battery laboratory, where employees carry out research. Researchers bake EV batteries, freeze them or subject them to other elements to determine how varying conditions affect the length of a charge.
The laboratory's Shawn Salisbury is analyzing data gathered from Utah charging stations, some of which are along the I-15 electric vehicle corridor.
Salisbury, a vehicle testing engineer, said the analysis includes 103 Utah chargers, 23 of which are the DC fast chargers.
The 103 chargers provided drivers with over 81.7 megawatt-hours of energy through 9,703 charges in April through June of this year, Salisbury said.
"The goal is to increase the adoption of plug-in vehicles throughout Utah, Wyoming and Idaho," he said. "The way they are doing that is through the deployment of charging infrastructure to build up the charging network throughout the region. There is also an education and outreach component."
Rocky Mountain Power's James Campbell said the University of Utah has students working at the Idaho lab in this continuing research to assess how more charging stations could ultimately affect the grid and how that might be managed in the future.
Utah Clean Energy notes that there are 4,400 electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids in Utah, which make up just under one half of 1 percent of the entire fleet of vehicles in the state. The state, however, was No. 1 in the growth rate for electric vehicle adoption, the advocacy group said, in a trend they expect to continue.
As electric vehicle prices come down and the charging infrastructure expands, electric vehicles are expected to make up more than half of the vehicles in the country by 2040. Campbell said the research needs to be done now to understand grid impacts in the future.
"We're modeling at a community level in neighborhoods what happens if everybody gets a Tesla and they are charging at night," he said.
Current research, Campbell said, shows that Rocky Mountain Power's grid can handle a charging load without upgrades if 50 percent of all homes had an electric vehicle in the driveway.
"As we get faster and faster chargers, we are going to have to manage it a different way," Campbell said.
Hear me now?
The Idaho laboratory is working with the University of Utah on the critical issue of cellphone service for first responders in a cataclysmic event like an earthquake striking the Wasatch Front.
Hurricane Maria, for example, took out 90 percent of Puerto Rico's cellular networks, and it was 10 days before first responders were able to make contact with the island's 68 municipalities.
Firefighters and others relied on low-tech options like ham radio or AM radio.
Closer to home, the Federal Communications Commission said Hurricane Harvey in 2017 disrupted service to 16 emergency dispatch centers in Texas and Louisiana.
The U.'s Behrouz Farhang is working with scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory to research how to spread the wireless communication signal over wider bandwidth to open up more avenues for people to communicate over the air.
In short, researchers believe the radio spectrum is underutilized and has room to grow, with hopes of developing new "cognitive" radios to make the best use of the communication systems.
"One of the key pieces for us is redundancy," said Unified Fire Authority Assistant Chief Mike Watson.
"When a certain system goes down, we need a Plan B and a Plan C. Plan B is cellphones and Plan C is satellite phones."
The Plan B, ideally, will make it possible for first responders to not have to compete for traffic on cellphones should be there be a massive incident.
Watson said AT&T is working on developing the nation's first public safety broadband network.
The laboratory and university are also part of a $100 million effort that is one of the first in the United States and largest in the world to build a living "wireless" lab along stretches of downtown Salt Lake City to the campus itself.
Ultimately, the idea is for companies to test the latest revolutionary technology in the increasingly complex arena of wireless communications.
The Salt Lake network, along with a similar test bed that will be installed in New York City, will offer the only at-scale testing environments that provide both realistic size, and conditions, for researchers to thoroughly vet new innovations.
Utah's Beaver County is the first and only place in the world where an underground laboratory to test new ways to access geothermal energy is under construction.
FORGE, or the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Engineering, is a U.S. Department of Energy project that may someday mean Utah residents — indeed the country — have easier, cheaper access to the earth's renewable thermal energy.
Researchers from around the world, including the Idaho National Laboratory, join the University of Utah in the $130 million project to test new technology in Utah's high plains desert.
The Idaho National Laboratory assisted the university in a preliminary site analysis in the project that is now in its second phase of development.
Utah already has 73 megawatts of installed geothermal capacity with a trio of producing plants, with the capability of generating 1,300 megawatts of energy.
Military and disasters
When Hurricane Michael ripped through Florida this month, it devastated Tyndall Air Force Base, inflicting catastrophic damage to structures, the flight line and the drone runway.
The base lost power and suffered billions in damages.
For years, the Idaho National Laboratory has been working with military installations in Utah and across the globe to assist them in their mission to become more resilient.
Tooele Army Depot makes about half the energy it consumes from renewable resources like wind and solar. It also worked with a contractor on a $1.7 million microgrid project after seeking technical assistance from the Idaho laboratory.
"The Army is really focusing on resiliency and site generation resources," said the laboratory's Kurt Myers, project manager and staff engineer in the power and energy systems department.
The system includes new generation 1-megawatt battery storage that will allow the facility to shape its energy demands.
Myers said the Army's goal is to sustain itself off the main grid for two weeks.
The laboratory lends it technical assistance and research in the arena of microgrids to military installations and other potential users such as government and universities.
A report by Grand View Research predicts the global market for microgrids will reach $17.51 billion by 2025.
These portable or stationary microgrids can either work with the utility grid or serve as islands in emergencies, Myers said.
In a civilian application, the microgrids can continue to power localized, critical services such as dispatch centers or hospitals should the main grid go down.
Myers has traveled to the Middle East, working with U.S. military leaders to find ways to deploy microgrids in foreign operations.
The U.S. military is the world's largest single consumer of petroleum, with Myers pointing out much of that is due to diesel in backup generators. Navigant Research points out that shifting from a reliance on backup diesel generators to large-scale microgrids could save the agency between $8 billion and $20 billion over the next 20 years.
Dugway Proving Ground is in the design phase for a microgrid and last year, the Utah National Guard sent a team to the Idaho National Laboratory to look at microgrid systems. Those microgrids can reduce fuel consumption and diversify a facility's energy sources.
Utah National Guard Capt. Keith Sestak said the guard wants to be able to operate "off grid" as much as possible in the event of an emergency.
Once Camp Williams gets a new turbine, he said the guard's energy status will be at net zero, meaning its consumption is equal to its renewable energy generation.
"The goal for Camp Williams is to come as close as possible to sustaining ourselves through the use of wind power, and we also have a pretty big solar array," he said.
"We are taking the best practices from INL to integrate into our system."