A new “fast” nuclear reactor would work a bit like the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II, which ran until 1994 at what is now Idaho National Laboratory.

IDAHO NATIONAL LABORATORY

Department of Energy moves forward with controversial test reactor

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced today that it will go forward with plans to build a controversial new nuclear reactor that some critics have called a boondoggle. If all goes as planned, the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) will be built at DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) near Idaho Falls and will generate copious high-energy neutrons to test new material and technologies for nuclear reactors. That would fill a key gap in the United States’s nuclear capabilities, proponents say. However, some critics have argued that the project is just an excuse to build a reactor of the general type that can generate more fuel than it consumes by “breeding” plutonium.

“This is a cutting-edge advanced reactor,” said Secretary of Energy Rick Perry at a press conference today at DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C. “It will give American companies the ability that they currently lack to conduct advanced technology and fuels tests without having to go to our competitors in Russia or China.”

Kemal Pasamehmetoglu, a nuclear engineer at INL who leads the project and was not at the press conference, says, “Obviously, this is very good news. It validates that we need this reactor.”

The VTR—also known as the Versatile Fast Neutron Source—would be the first reactor DOE has built since the 1970s. It would differ in one key respect from the typical commercial power reactors. Power reactors use a uranium fuel that contains just a few percent of the fissile isotope uranium-235 and is made to be used once and discarded. In contrast, the VTR would use a fuel richer in uranium-235 that would generate more high-energy neutrons as it “burned.” Those neutrons could be used to test how new materials and components age within the core of a conventional nuclear reactor, a key factor in reactor design.

In principle, such a “fast reactor” could also convert nonfissile uranium-238 to plutonium-239, which could be extracted by reprocessing the fuel. Many nuclear engineers envision a future in which the world relies on such fast reactors and reprocessed fuel for its electricity. Critics of the nuclear industry argue that breeder reactors are unnecessary and risky, as they would establish an economy in plutonium, the stuff of nuclear weapons. Some critics say the VTR is a way to keep that controversial dream alive—although VTR developers do not plan to breed plutonium or reprocess fuel.

The VTR already has friends in both parties in Congress, which in September 2018 gave the project $65 million for this fiscal year—even before DOE had definitely decided it wanted the reactor. However, Pasamehmetoglu urges caution about interpreting the DOE announcement. Strictly speaking, he says, it means the project has passed the first of five milestones—known as “critical decisions”—and that DOE has decided it needs the VTR to fulfill its mission. “It’s just a start,” Pasamehmetoglu says. “It doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that DOE has said that they’re going to go out and build this.”

Still, Pasamehmetoglu is optimistic. Researchers will now start to work on a conceptual design. They are still a couple of steps away from hammering out a detailed cost estimate and schedule. But Pasamehmetoglu estimates the reactor would cost between $3 billion and $3.5 billion and says the goal is to get it running in 2026. It would be a small 300-megawatt reactor, most likely cooled with liquid sodium, that would not produce electrical power.

At the press conference, held with Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency in Paris, Perry also announced $24 million in new projects on technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions from industrial plants and sequester the gas underground. “We believe that you can’t have a serious conversation about reducing emissions without including nuclear energy and carbon capture technologies,” Perry said. He noted projections suggest that in 2040 the world will still depend on fossil fuels for 77% of its energy, and in just the next 18 months U.S. exports of liquid natural gas should climb 150%, Perry said.

Clarification, 1 March 2019, 12:30 p.m.: The story has been updated to clarify why some critics of the nuclear industry object to reactors that could breed plutonium.