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What’s Needed to Save Funding 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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  • Oct 16, 2021
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It is time for the major developers of advanced nuclear reactors, and small modular light water reactors, in the U.S. to support funding for the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR).

The reason is that these firms will need its testing capabilities to certify that their fuels, materials, sensors, and components will work in the demanding conditions that these plants are designed to operate in. There is no other way to do it. Self-certification either directly or with fuel and component vendors, is not a viable strategy.

Real-time measurements and post-irradiation examination techniques will provide valuable information on how fuels, materials, components and instrumentation withstand the extreme conditions inside nuclear power plants. This is crucial information needed to design, license, and build successful implementations of advanced nuclear reactors.

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inl logoThe Advanced Test Reactor (ATR), which has performed this mission for the past 60 years, is undergoing a once-a-decade refurbishment and will be available soon to continue this scope of work while the VTR is being built. The VTR is the next generation of test reactors.

The Funding Problem

Here’s the funding problem. 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. Supporters of the VTR project hope to restore the line item in DOE’s spending plan later this year in an omnibus bill that will be used to fund the entire federal government.

What remains unexplained, even by Congress, is why if there is broad technical support for the VTR, why no money was provided for it? The answer, according to several sources who remain anonymous, is that the commercial side of the nuclear industry, especially developers of advanced nuclear reactors, didn’t step up to the plate. With no in the batter’s box from the commercial lineup, Congress didn’t score the VTR for funding.

Apparently, the story is that the Appropriations Committee was told developers felt that instead of waiting for the VTR to be built, and to be ready to test their fuels, components, and sensors, that they could do the fuel testing and other certification work themselves. This is a position by the commercial side of the industry in the service of speeding up time to market for their designs, but it is a mistake. By saying they can’t wait for impartial testing, these firms may be digging themselves into a hole rather than gaining market share. The position also slides by the fact that support for the VTR is not a waiting game as the ATR will be available for these testing missions.

This picture of sending a mixed message to a congressional appropriations committee, faced with multiple decisions about spending billions of dollars, is a sure path to zero dollars for the program at hand and that appears to be exactly what happened.

When faced with a message from the technical side of the nuclear industry over the need for the VTR, and a shoulder shrug at best from the commercial side, the appropriations committee likely said something along the lines of “ if these guys can’t get on the same page, we’re not going to fund it.”

Why Boeing 737 MAX Case Matters

It is not a good idea for developers of any large scale, complex technology to do their own testing, especially without the involvement of impartial third parties. The case in point is the costly debacle for Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowed the aircraft manufacturer to test and report the results, including on the software for its autopilot functions, as part of the certification of the plane for commercial use. It turned out very badly financially for the firm and the credibility of the FAA, as a regulatory agency, was called into question.

Boeing agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion in fines and compensation after reaching a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department over the MAX crashes, which cost Boeing overall more than $20 billion. Also, what Boeing could have done with that money to get the 737 to market if it hadn’t cut corners with the required testing of the auto pilot software? From the perspective of nuclear energy, a firm could build more than a few advanced reactors for that kind of money.

The Brookings Institution studied the faults in the FAA’s process, and lack of oversight, testing, QA compliance, and other measures to insure a new airplane is ready for commercial service. The independent task force commissioned by the FAA to investigate the 737 Max situation concluded that the FAA failed to adequately monitor Boeing.

The report found that the aircraft manufacturer’s employees performed almost all of the analysis of the 737 Max safety system that contributed to the accidents, which was in turn reviewed by FAA employees who were unfamiliar with the complex underlying safety systems.

The task force concluded that the FAA would have closely scrutinized the aspects of the 737 Max that caused the accidents had its staff been more familiar with the technical details. The lesson learned from the Boeing case is that it is in the interest of commercial nuclear firms to avoid at all costs going down the same road.

What Needs to Be Done to Save Funding for the VTR?

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.

What is needed is to energize the lobbying influence of the commercial nuclear industry to restore the funding for the VTR. It is in the interests of these developers to do everything they can to get the VTR built and operating and that means getting the money from Congress to make these things happen.

It also wouldn’t hurt for commercial developers to mobilize their supply chains by congressional district since the House is where the VTR got zero funding. Plus, the more congressional districts that have skin in the game in terms of jobs and tax bae from being part of the supply chain for nuclear developers, the more receptive members of congress will be to restoring funding for the VTR.

Build a Partner with DOD and Make the National Security Case

There is a natural partner for this joint messaging effort of technical and commercial interests. 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 peleThe 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.

The best outcome would be for developers of advanced nuclear reactors and DOD to jointly, or at least coordinate their efforts to make national security case for the VTR to Congress to restore funding for it, to fund its construction, and operation.

Don’t Waste Time. The Russians are Coming

It is time to get moving because the continuing resolution to fund the government for the rest of this fiscal year has to be passed by both chambers and signed by the president by mid-December.

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

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.

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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 https://inl.gov/vtr/

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 Oct 16, 2021

What's needed to save funding for the Versatile Test Reactor? Dan, a cynic might say, "Evidence that it will never bear fruit."  And after watching recent episodes of Fire - Power - Money,  and having personal experience watching how California's governor and his  administration have privately assured the destruction of Diablo Canyon Power Plant, I'd be inclined to agree.

"ABC10’s award-winning investigative series reveals how California’s state government, under Governor Gavin Newsom, responded to PG&E’s deadly crimes by giving the company rewards and protection."

There has been lobbying to save the VTR, but it's no match for the resources behind oil, gas, and the multi-billion-dollar renewables industry. Those interests have never considered nuclear energy as anything but a threat, and as the series shows forcefully, corporations are people, and the ones with the most money have the loudest  megaphones.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 18, 2021

Advocacy by technical experts is necessary but not sufficient to get the attention of congress.

In so many ways, if only the technical expertise was listened to then we'd be having such different conversations re:Congress!

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Oct 18, 2021

I wrote this piece to light a fire under the commercial developers to step up to the plate and swing for the fences in support of the VTR. I also criticized their self-serving stance that they can do all the testing on their own. The reference case of why this is a bad idea is the Boeing 7376 MX debacle. 

In this piece I am an advocate for their best interests. It will be interesting to learn whether they see it this way.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 18, 2021

Matt, "advocacy by technical experts" has traditionally been an oxymoron. In general, scientists have been taught advocacy is bad science - that they should be so thorough with their research that its speaks for itself, that there should be no need to "sell" one conclusion or another. The conclusions of good scientific papers are never brash or triumphant - at best, they might offer an opinion: "Evidence presented in this paper may suggest x caused y, but more study is necessary to determine the extent of z's role."

Professional reticence has left many scientists unskilled in the art of communication. It can be a no-win situation: temerity can cost a scientist the respect of her colleagues, hesitancy will cost her legitimacy in the eyes of the public. An old riddle:
Q: How do you know when a scientist is an extrovert?
A: He looks at your shoes while he's talking.

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