The Department of Energy has begun the environmental review of its proposed Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), releasing a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for public review and comment on December 21. The sodium-cooled, fast-neutron-spectrum VTR is intended to enhance and accelerate U.S. research, development, and demonstration of innovative nuclear energy technologies.
As previously indicated by the DOE, the draft EIS identifies Idaho National Laboratory as its preferred alternative for the siting and operation of the VTR. To the extent possible, existing facilities (modified as necessary) would be used for the VTR support facilities, the DOE said.
“DOE is committed to designing and operating the VTR in a way that protects the environment and nearby communities,” said Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal. “The VTR will help ensure that DOE and our industry partners can develop innovative nuclear technologies to supply the United States, and the world, with abundant carbon-free energy.”
Public input: Comments on the VTR draft EIS will be accepted during a comment period that will extend for 45 days after the Environmental Protection Agency publishes its notice of availability in the Federal Register (expected to be December 31, 2020). The DOE plans to hold two public hearings on the draft EIS, which, in light of ongoing public health concerns, will be internet-based, virtual public hearings. The dates of the hearings will be provided in a future notice posted on the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy’s VTR website. The hearings will be held no earlier than 15 days from the posting of the notice.
The review: The VTR draft EIS was prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and analyzes the potential impacts on various environmental and community resources of the VTR alternatives and of options for reactor fuel production. The EIS evaluates:
- Construction and operation of the VTR at INL or Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This includes operating and performing experiments in the VTR, post-irradiation examination of irradiated test specimens in hot cell facilities, and spent fuel conditioning and storage pending shipment for interim or permanent disposal.
- Production of fuel for the VTR at INL and/or the Savannah River Site, including preparing feedstock for the fuel, fabricating fuel pins, and assembling the fuel pins into reactor fuel.
- A no-action alternative under which DOE would not pursue the construction and operation of a VTR.
The DOE will make a final decision regarding the VTR following the completion of the EIS and the issuance of a record of decision, which is expected in late 2021.
Background: The DOE Office of Nuclear Energy established the VTR program in 2018 in response to the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, which directed the department to assess the mission need for and cost of a versatile reactor-based fast-neutron source with high neutron flux, irradiation flexibility, multiple experimental environment capabilities, and volume for many concurrent users.
The DOE approved the mission need for the VTR in February 2019 and in September 2020 approved Critical Decision 1, which is the second step in the formal process the DOE uses to review and manage research infrastructure projects.