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Opinion – A New Hope for 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...

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A lot in terms of US energy security and its impact on climate policy is riding on what backers of the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) would do with a proposed $45 million sitting as a line item in the DOE Budget proposal for FY 2023. Page 73 of the 143 page summary of the FY 2023 budget contains the line item which is significant after Congress zeroed out all funding for the VTR in the FY 2022 appropriation.

The request comes after several previous requests for five to six times that amount were rejected by Congress. An appeal by DOE in late Fall 2021 to reverse the decision for the 2022 appropriation failed to move the needle with the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The fact that DOE requested, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved, the request for a paltry $45 million, which in a town that measures progress in trillions of dollars, is basically ‘walking around money,’ is that it is a not to be missed opportunity to make up for lost time.

The new money, if approved by Congress, offers backers of the VTR an opportunity to make a case for it amid a radically and rapidly changing landscape in Europe in terms of demand of advanced test reactor capabilities.

DOE nuclear energy 2023

The Russians are Coming for Lunch – Ours

Until recently, Russia was scooping up future market share for testing advanced reactors, and having a big piece of the resulting intellectual property that results from it, especially in Eastern Europe, with its rapid work to build a similar test reactor, the MBIR, and align it with a national laboratory type nuclear research facility.

Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear corporation, has been promoting the use of its multi-purpose fast neutron research reactor (MBIR) which is under construction at the Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (NIIAR) in Dimitrovgrad in the Ulyanovsk region of Russia, located about 1,600 miles east of Moscow. The state owned enterprise is hawking its capabilities and soliciting partnerships on an international scale.

It is creating an International Research Center (IRC) to be a home for cooperative R&D and test projects. According to the June 2020 Rosatom briefing, four nations have signed up so far – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia

The briefing says these arrangements, and others like it, will support the IRC’s ambitions to become a world class center of excellence for testing materials to be used in fast neutron reactors. The purpose of the MBIR construction effort is to have a high-flux fast test reactor with unique capabilities which are very much in competition with the proposed VTR.

Russia’s Loss Could Be VTR’s Gain

Had Russia not invaded Ukraine, and made itself an international pariah, the absence of a VTR in the US would have, de facto, ceded a huge chunk of testing work for advanced reactors to Russia, and shortened their time to market for them, along with a big fat Russian imprint. The impact on US energy security, and potential loss of export sales of advanced reactors, as well as hits on supply chain jobs at home, and the other benefits of robust energy security,, all were slated to evaporate in the mist of Congressional myopia about the role and importance of the VTR in advancing the US nuclear industry.

International sanctions brought against Russia by the US, UK, and EU nations, are penalties imposed with the objective of stopping that country from acting aggressively, or breaking international law. So far, they have had little effect on Russia, but their influence has been significant in terms of cutting off essential trade. Even Chinese natural gas companies have suspended plans for a Siberian energy project due to the imposition of sanctions Russia.

Now that no one in the EU is going to touch a Russian test reactor with a ten-foot pole, the $45 million in funding the backers of the VTR might get, or more, if Congress wakes up, can be used, among other things, to build an well constructed energy security / climate policy case to use the VTR to pursue and book the testing projects of US and European developers of advanced reactors who otherwise might have set their sights on using the MBIR.

It is market share sitting on the table waiting for the VTR to pick it up. More importantly, it is crucial opportunity, in terms of U.S. presence in the global nuclear industry, to advance its interests in terms of energy security and climate policy.

It is an unexpected jackpot opportunity to take the testing market share the Russians have left on the table and bring it to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). If that plan can be executed, it could potentially cement the VTR’s role in terms of testing capability and support for US developers of advanced reactors, on a global basis, for years if not decades to come.

vtr and ardp

To get there backers of the VTR have to get clear of their feelings of rejection and put pedal to the metal for an all out push to restore funding for the project and to build it as quickly as possible. The organizational ground work has been done. Now is time to leverage it.

This is no time for half measures. My advice to INL, the Department of Energy, and its partners on the VTR, is to set up a presence in Washington, DC, and use some of that $45M to pay for a world class plan to convince Congress that U.S. energy security depends on building the VTR. If they don’t do it, the US will pay a steep price in terms of degraded global nuclear energy security which will impose a price far greater than the cost of building the reactor. Congress needs to get in the picture with advocacy in the House and Senate by energy related committees and for the national security interests of the nation.

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Note to Readers: This post was written before confirmed reports were published by western news media and human rights organizations about atrocities in Ukraine carried out by Russian military troops. While emotional responses to the horror of these reports is inevitable, reactions based on rational foreign policy need a more sober basis for action. Russia’s isolation from commerce with the EU and other nations is likely to intensify as a result. The US and EU countries are expected to impose additional and, likely long lasting, sanctions on Russia in the coming days and some of them will address Russia’s reliance on energy exports.

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