Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory are being considered as potential sites for a test reactor, where fuels and materials could be tested for new types of nuclear power reactors.
It’s not clear where the test reactor would be built at ORNL, if it’s built there.
The fast-neutron reactor, called the Versatile Test Reactor, would be sodium-cooled and small, about 300 megawatts thermal. It would be based on the GE Hitachi PRISM power reactor. That’s a small module design based on the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II, which operated for more than 30 years in Idaho, the U.S. Department of Energy said in a notice published in the Federal Register on Monday. (Fast neutrons are highly energetic neutrons that travel at speeds ranging from tens to thousands of kilometers per second.)
The Versatile Test Reactor would be a pool-type reactor and use metal alloy fuels that could include uranium, plutonium, zirconium and other alloying metals. It would not be a power reactor, and it would not generate electricity. It could generate at least 4×1015 neutrons per square centimeter per second.
Reactor operations could start as early as the end of 2026, DOE said. Fuel for the reactor could be fabricated at Idaho National Laboratory or the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
DOE said sodium-cooled reactor technology has been successfully used in the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II, in Washington at the Fast Flux Test Facility, and in Michigan at the Fermi 1 Nuclear Generating Station.
The Federal Register notice published Monday said DOE plans to develop an environmental impact statement, or EIS, to study the potential impacts of the Versatile Test Reactor and is accepting public comments about the scope of the EIS.
Environmental issues that could be analyzed include the potential effects on public health, to air and water, to plants and animals, to communities and cultural resources, and to waste management, land-use plans, and intentional destructive acts, among other topics.
DOE said it has determined that there is a need for a versatile fast-neutron test reactor. The reactor could, among other things, serve many users at the same time and test new nuclear fuels and materials, and other important items such as control rods and instruments. The reactor’s high flux, or flow, would accelerate the testing of reactor materials, DOE said. Advanced reactor designs could be tested, including for sodium-cooled reactors, gas-cooled reactors, and molten salt reactors. Samples encapsulated in cartridges in the reactor could test the effects of a high flux of high-energy or fast neutrons.
It’s an important project because the reactor could help the nuclear power industry design fuels and materials that will provide large amounts of carbon-free, economical electricity for the nation’s electrical grid, DOE said in a press release Monday.
“This testing capability is essential for the United States to modernize its nuclear energy infrastructure and for developing transformational nuclear energy technologies that reduce waste generation and enhance nuclear security,” U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in the press release. “Lack of a domestic reactor with versatile fast-neutron-spectrum testing capability is a significant national strategic risk affecting the ability of DOE to fulfill its mission to advance the energy, environmental, and nuclear security of the United States, and promote scientific and technological innovation.”
Perry announced the launch of the Versatile Test Reactor Project on February 28. It’s part of modernizing the nuclear research and development infrastructure in the United States, DOE said.
The Federal Register notice said there are many commercial organizations and universities pursuing advanced nuclear energy fuels, materials, and reactor designs. That work complements the research of DOE and its laboratories, the department said. The designs include thermal and fast-spectrum reactors meant to improve fuel use and waste management, and to use materials other than water for cooling. (Thermal neutrons are less energetic neutrons that travel at speeds of less than five kilometers per second.)
“Their development requires an adequate infrastructure for experimentation, testing, design evolution, and component qualification,” DOE said.
Some existing ORNL facilities could be involved in the project, if Oak Ridge is selected. The ORNL buildings could include the Irradiated Fuels Examination Laboratory; the Irradiated Materials Examination and Testing Building’s hot cell facility; the Radiochemical Engineering Development Center, which works with the High Flux Isotope Reactor and would need to be modified or expanded; and glovebox laboratories, heavily shielded hot cells, and analytical laboratories in buildings 7920 and 7930, the notice said. (A hot cell has concrete walls several feet thick, multi-layered leaded-glass windows several feet thick, and manipulator arms that allow operators to remotely perform tasks inside the hot cell.)
DOE said existing irradiation test capabilities are aging, and some are more than 50 years old. The United States has not had a viable domestic fast-neutron-spectrum testing capability for more than two decades, the notice said.
“DOE needs to develop this capability to establish the United States’ testing capability for next-generation nuclear reactors—many of which require a fast-neutron spectrum for operation—thus enabling the United States to regain technology leadership for the next-generation nuclear fuels, material, and reactors,” the notice said.
The department said the existing facilities are focused on the testing of materials, fuels, and components in the thermal neutron spectrum, and they do not have the ability to support the needs for fast reactors.
Since DOE has identified the need for a fast-neutron source like the proposed test reactor, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017 directs the department to complete construction and approve the start of test reactor operations by December 31, 2025, or as close as possible, the Federal Register notice said.
But first, DOE must prepare the environmental impact statement, or EIS, under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and federal regulations. The EIS will evaluate the alternatives for the versatile reactor-based fast-neutron source and its associated facilities, which would prepare, irradiate, and examine irradiated experimental fuels and materials, the notice said.
“DOE needs to develop this capability on an accelerated schedule to avoid further delay in the United States’ ability to develop and deploy advanced nuclear energy technologies,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal. “If this capability is not available to U.S. innovators as soon as possible, the ongoing shift of nuclear technology dominance to other international states such as China and the Russian Federation will accelerate, to the detriment of the U.S. nuclear industrial sector. Beginning the NEPA process at this time will ensure that all environmental factors are considered before the department makes a final decision to move forward with the project.”
The public can comment from August 5 through September 4 as part of the first steps of the NEPA process. The public can comment about what the department should consider in the draft version of the EIS.
Under NEPA, the draft EIS analysis will be completed during the next several months and published, and the public will be invited to comment on it for 45 days. DOE will evaluate comments before the EIS is made final.
When final, the EIS will be published and made available to the public for 30 days before the department can issue a record of decision.
In addition to gathering written comments, DOE will host two interactive webcast scoping meetings to provide information about the Versatile Test Reactor and the NEPA process, and to gather oral and written comments. The webcast scoping meetings will be held August 27 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time (4 p.m. Mountain Time) and August 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time (6 p.m. Mountain Time), and they will be accessible during those times on the internet (August 27 and August 28). To join the webcast scoping meetings by phone, participants can call toll-free in the U.S. at (877) 869-3847.
The Federal Register notice said DOE is studying advanced concepts in nuclear energy, hoping to develop new, safer reactors with fewer environmental and nuclear proliferation concerns.
See the Federal Register notice here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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