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A Modest Proposal to Save the Versatile Test Reactor

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher, NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Nov 30, 2021

Issue:  In mid August the House Appropriations Committee reported out a bill for 2022 with $1.7 billion in funding for Department of Energy programs, but it set zero funding for the versatile test reactor (VTR). The committee report did not provide an explanation for this action despite the fact there is broad support from the nuclear science and engineering communities and academia.

Unless a rescue plan is put in place soon, it could be a year, or longer, or maybe even never, for the VTR to get funded by the government, as presently proposed, which is a major new test reactor to be build at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Background:  Currently, a broad coalition of nuclear scientists and technical experts at national laboratories and research universities have published articles and white papers explaining why the versatile test reactor is necessary. In 2020 some commercial developers also spoke up.

Dr. Kathryn Huff, DOE’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, has a stump speech on the VTR which she presents in response to every chance she gets to speak. Advocacy by technical experts is necessary but not sufficient to get the attention of congress.

Discussion: The design of the Versatile Test Reactor has the same technical legacy as TerraPower’s Natrium advanced reactor. The firm has announced that it plans to build the a Natrium reactor for its customer – Rocky Mountain Power – at the site of a coal fired power plant in Kemmerer, WY.

The location of the site is significant because it is only 140 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, and, even more significantly, it is only 210 miles southeast of Idaho Falls, ID, the home of the Idaho National Laboratory. It makes it an idea location to graft on the capabilities of the VTR to the same reactor design as if it was built from scratch in Idaho.

TP Natrium

Proposal #1: Add Two Test Loops to the TerraPower Natrium Reactor to be Built in Wyoming

The VTR can be saved if the Department of Energy (DOE) will partner with TerraPower to fund the addition of at least two VTR test loops on to the commercial Natrium reactor which is to be built in Wyoming. This effort would create the capabilities of the VTR on the same platform as if DOE was building the VTR from the ground up in in Idaho.  The test loops would be pursued after the license was granted by the NRC for the commercial unit.

Note that there is precedent by DOE for using commercial reactors for R&D testing. The agency has plans to use one of the SMRs to be built by NuScale at the Idaho lab for R&D testing of hydrogen production and process heat applications and related materials to support them.

The Attraction of Cost Efficiency Can Sell the Deal

The cost of the adding two test loops to the Natrium reactor is easily less than a tenth of the cost of an entirely new VTR reactor ($3-6 billion) and could be built in tandem with the commercial unit.  The total cost of the Natrium reactor to be built in Wyoming will be about $1.4 billion.

The cost savings of just adding the test loops to the commercial Natrium unit, compared to asking congress for the funds to build an entirely new reactor, would be a “win” for all concerned. It would remove the challenges faced by  advocates of the VTR of swimming upstream like a salmon past a cadre of hungry bears to build the entire $3-6 billion facility. It would show Congress that DOE and the commercial nuclear industry can delivery a cost-effective test stand without breaking the bank.

up rr coalThe relatively short driving distance to the site from Idaho Falls, or from Salt Lake City, would make the test facility easily accessible to any developer of advanced nuclear technologies or the fuels needed to power them. R&D staff from the INL could easily access the Kemmerer site which is basically less than half a day’s drive from Idaho Falls.

Kemmerer is also served by the Union Pacific railroad which delivers coal to the current power plant.  As a practical matter, the rail head there will also be needed serve delivery of reactor components as well as materials like steel and concrete to built the Natrium reactor.

Licensing and Construction Timelines

Currently, the ATR has only one test loop available for use by developers of advanced reactors and their fuels which has resulted in a backlog of applications to use the facility. Some developers are building their own test stands and others are seeking commercial services outside the US.

The problem of testing for new reactor designs, including materials and fuels, is not unique to the US.  In the UK Rolls-Royce, which will submit its 470 MWe PWR to the UK Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) for the kick-off of the four-year generic design assessment, is considering using test facilities in Italy to support the effort due to a lack of capacity in the UK.

The timeframe to add the test loops to the Natrium reactor would be similar to or perhaps faster than starting from scratch to add two new test loops to the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) which according to some sources, is a five- year bureaucratic slog. An additional option would be to create space in the Wyoming Natrium reactor to add more test loops in future years to support testing missions as needed including both civilian and defense customers in the US and perhaps international customers as well.

TerraPower anticipates submitting the plant’s construction permit application to the NRC in mid-2023. The plant is expected to be operational in the next seven years.

According to project estimates, approximately 2,000 workers will be needed for construction at the project’s peak. Once the plant is operational, approximately 250 people will support day-to-day activities, including plant security. The timeframe to build the Natrium reactor in Wyoming is close to the one to build an entirely new VTR.

vtr timeline

Proposal #2:  Partner with DOD and Make the National Security Case for the VTR and Natrium

There is a natural partner for this the idea of adding two test loops to the Natrium Reactor to create a VTR type capability.  It is the Department of Defense which under Project Pele is developing 1-5 MWe mini reactors for use to insure tactical readiness of military bases by supplying reliable electricity to them. There are two reasons why this partnership is necessary.

project pele

The commercial nuclear industry is the the supplier of the mini reactor designs. If the commercial nuclear industry hopes to benefit from DOD’s work on Project Pele, it is going to need the VTR to validate key elements of their designs. The military does not buy technologies that are self-certified by their vendors.

It follows that if DOE can be convinced that it is in their interests to buy in to the creation of two VTR test loops at the Natrium reactor in Wyoming, that this would be added throw weight in the effort to convince congress to fund the effort.

Don’t Waste Time. The Russians are Coming

By the way, the Russians will be happy to do exactly the same thing as the VTR with their version of it which they are building right now. Developers in other countries will have access to it. The message to US commercial developers is that it they want market share, support the VTR or others will take it from you. Losing the funding for VTR would be a terrible missed opportunity. Don’t blow it. Hitch your wagon to the Natrium reactor in Wyoming.

What is the Versatile Test Reactor?

VTR will help scientists and engineers create safer, longer-lasting and more efficient fuels, materials, sensors and instrumentation required for nuclear technologies.

It will streamline the development of new nuclear technologies that can help bring reliable, affordable electricity to remote areas or provide the heat and energy needed to produce hydrogen, provide the high-temperature process heat needed for industrial applications, and produce clean water from brackish water, salt water or wastewater.

The Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) is a one-of-a-kind scientific user facility capable of performing large-scale, fast-spectrum neutron irradiation tests and experiments simply not possible today. It will support research, development and demonstration of innovative nuclear energy technologies (with a focus on fuels, materials and sensors in representative environments) that can supply the world with abundant carbon-free energy.


With the addition of VTR, the United States will again lead the world in nuclear energy research, safety and security while also supporting United States industry partners as they commercialize new technologies. See also the full VTR FAQ

What will VTR do?

Test reactors are scientific research tools. They provide intense neutron fluxes that are used to simulate prototypical conditions or conduct accelerated neutron damage irradiation studies.

Real-time measurements and subsequent post-irradiation examination techniques provide valuable information on how fuels, materials, components and instrumentation withstand the extreme conditions inside nuclear power plants and even future fusion reactors. This enables scientists and engineers to design safer, longer-lasting and more efficient fuels, materials and components for nuclear energy systems.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 1, 2021

Dan, from an engineering standpoint it makes sense. But I think there would be problems with the politics and finances of trying to integrate a private facility with a public one, where independent developers would obviously be working at a disadvantage to a company (Microsoft) in partnership with the U.S. government.

Has their been a similar situation that was successful?

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Dec 1, 2021

There has been some constructive feedback on the idea from several people with excellent expertise on reactors. Since they responded in their private capacity. I'll give a summary here.  First, the neutron flux of the VTR to 2X that of the commercial version. Second,. the dual missions would require two NRC licenses - one as a commercial reactor and one as a non-power research reactor. Why NRC does this is a mystery as it is the same reactor either way. Third, there were objections from several people about the remote location. My response is to cite the model for astronomy.  Principal investigators who want to use The Very Large Telescope (VLT). a telescope facility operated by the European Southern Observatory on Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, send in the equivalent of work orders for observations to be taken by permanent staff. They don't travel from European nations to Chile to do the work themselves. We lived in a highly connected world and can leverage these capabilities if we choose to do so.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 2, 2021

Interesting, although the model for astronomy is wanting. Pointing the VLT at an area of the sky involves no hands-on construction or modifications to hardware. Evaluating various alternatives would be time-consuming.

Possibly a model based on Antarctic research centers, where one or two individuals could move in for months at a time, with temporary housing offered at reduced rates (Argonne National Laboratory has a similar facility)?

Dan Yurman's picture
Thank Dan for the Post!
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