Thursday, September 24, 2020

DOE greenlights Critical Decision 1 for Versatile Test Reactor project

Even as the Versatile Test Reactor makes its way through the federal approval process, the VTR team has already begun collaborating with industry and academia to prepare experiments in anticipation of construction.

The U.S. Department of Energy on Wednesday announced it has approved Critical Decision 1 for the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) project, a one-of-a-kind scientific user facility that would support research and development of innovative nuclear energy and other technologies.

Idaho National Laboratory has been designated the lead national laboratory for the project, heading a team that also includes Argonne National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Savannah River National Laboratory, as well as several universities and industry partners. Detailed cost estimates are not yet available, but documentation submitted for Critical Decision 0, based on similar projects, put the estimate between $3 billion and $6 billion. When the analysis of alternatives and conceptual design are completed, more accurate cost estimates are expected with a narrow cost range.

DOE is s considering locating VTR at either Idaho National Laboratory or Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is following processes outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to make its determination. Since clearing Critical Decision 0 in February 2019, DOE has been preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) as required by NEPA, to analyze alternatives and study impacts.

Critical Decision 1, known as “Approve Alternative Selection and Cost Range,” is the second step in the formal process DOE uses to review and manage research infrastructure projects. As part of Critical Decision 1, federal committees reviewed the conceptual design, schedule, and cost range, and analyzed potential alternatives. The VTR project now moves to the engineering design phase as soon as Congress appropriates funding. DOE has requested $295 million for FY 2021 for the project.

Frequently asked VTR questions

Versatile Test Reactor’s purpose will be to produce high levels of fast-neutron radiation to mimic, in weeks or months, the effects sustained over years or decades in a power reactor core. Existing test reactors, like the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) at INL and the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are thermal neutron reactors. Modifications can be made to simulate fast neutron conditions and limited boosting of fast neutron fluxes in thermal reactors, but irradiation conditions (in terms of neutron flux and energy spectrum) are not sufficiently prototypical to create data required in a formal fuels and materials development and qualification program for fast reactor designs.

DOE’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee studied the issue and released a report in February 2017, recommending preconceptual design planning to support a new test reactor, including cost and schedule estimates. Companies developing advanced reactor including TerraPower, Westinghouse and Oklo, submitted letters in support of the NEAC report. The only capability for testing fast spectrum irradiation currently available to U.S. companies is the Bor-60 reactor in the Russian Federation. U.S. researchers and developers encounter multiple barriers when seeking access to Russian Federation reactors, including export control concerns for materials and fuels testing, intellectual property rights, and international transportation issues.

TerraPower: The Versatile Test Reactor Is Essential to Reestablishing U.S. Nuclear Leadership

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the approval of CD-1 represents a significant step toward re-establishing the United States as a global leader in nuclear energy research, safety and security, and developing new technologies that will help supply the world with low-carbon energy. “The Versatile Test Reactor addresses a long-standing gap in research infrastructure in the United States,” he said. “We have not had a fast neutron spectrum test facility for decades. Many of the new reactor designs under development by in the United States require this sort of long-term testing capability. Not only will VTR support the research and development of much-needed clean energy technologies, but it is key to revitalizing our nuclear industry, which has long been the model for safe operations and security for the world.”

“The approval of Critical Decision 1 establishes a solid foundation upon which the design phase can begin,” said Dr. Rita Baranwal, Assistant Secretary for DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. “We have repeatedly heard from industry and other stakeholders that the United States needs a fast neutron scientific user facility to maintain our global leadership in nuclear energy. This decision puts us firmly on the path toward achieving that goal.”

DOE will make a final decision on the design, technology selection and location for VTR following the completion of the EIS and Record of Decision. According to the current schedule, final design will be completed, and construction would commence in 2022. The target date for a Versatile Test Reactor to be fully operational is 2026, subject to an adequate level of funding appropriations by Congress. The range for the startup date is estimated to be 2026 to 2030.

INL.gov: Versatile Test Reactor key to answering big science questions for university researchers