Now that the Department of Energy has approved Critical Decision 1 for the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) project, the engineering design phase can begin once Congress appropriates funding, according to a September 23 announcement from the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. The DOE has requested $295 million for the project in fiscal year 2021.
The news came nearly one month after a team led by Bechtel National Inc. (BNI), and including GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and TerraPower, entered into contract negotiations with Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA) for the design-and-build phase of the VTR. GEH’s sodium-cooled fast reactor PRISM technology was selected to support the VTR program in November 2018.
What is a “Critical Decision”? Critical Decision 1, known as “Approve Alternative Selection and Cost Range,” is the second step in the formal process the DOE uses to review and manage research infrastructure projects. Federal committees have reviewed the conceptual design, schedule, and cost range for the project and have analyzed potential alternatives. In August 2019, the DOE issued a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) for the VTR as part of Critical Decision 1 activities. Earlier in 2019, Critical Decision 0 approved the need for the VTR, and Critical Decision 2/3, scheduled for July–September 2022, would set the project baseline and authorize the start of construction.
“The approval of Critical Decision 1 establishes a solid foundation upon which the design phase can begin,” said Rita Baranwal, DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy.
Mind the gap: “The Versatile Test Reactor addresses a long-standing gap in research infrastructure in the United States,” said Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette. “We have not had a fast neutron spectrum test facility for decades. Many of the new reactor designs under development 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 VTR will generate neutrons at higher speeds and higher concentrations than existing test infrastructure to provide accelerated testing of advanced nuclear fuels, materials, instrumentation, and sensors. The VTR project is being managed by Idaho National Laboratory on behalf of the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy.
The vision: Once built, the VTR will be able to conduct tests and experiments in eight key areas: molten salt reactors, gas-cooled fast reactors, lead-cooled fast reactors, sodium-cooled fast reactors, structural materials testing, systems for rapid specimen/test insertion and retrieval, digital engineering and virtual design and construction, and instrumentation and controls.
According to INL, work done to date has already led to innovative sensors and monitoring systems, digital engineering approaches, enhanced modeling, and measurement techniques that are assisting in the development of new nuclear energy technologies.
Next steps: The current VTR schedule calls for a record of decision on the design, technology selection, and location for the VTR in late 2021, following the completion of the EIS. INL and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are the two potential hosts for the VTR. According to the DOE, the VTR could be operating as early as 2026.