U of Illinois plans to integrate research and power with advanced microreactor

June 30, 2021, 12:18PMNuclear News
A rendering of Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation’s micro modular reactor as proposed for construction on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. (Graphic: USNC)

The U.S. state with more nuclear power plants than any other—Illinois—has no operating university research reactors. A team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) intends to reverse that situation and construct a high-temperature gas-cooled microreactor. If the team's plans go ahead, the first new U.S. university research reactor deployment in about 30 years could also support commercial advanced reactor deployment.

The university announced on June 28 that it had submitted a letter of intent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to apply for a license to construct Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation’s micro modular reactor (MMR). UIUC has been without a research reactor since 1998, when its TRIGA reactor was decommissioned.

The UIUC reactor would produce 15 MWt, according to UIUC assistant professor Katy Huff, who has since been named the Department of Energy’s deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy.

Repowering with nuclear: Currently, the university’s Abbott power station, which was originally commissioned in the 1940s as a coal-burning plant, provides about 70–75 percent of the electricity and heat required by campus buildings from both coal and natural gas–fired generation. The university’s Grainger College of Engineering and the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering are collaborating with Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation to partially repower the station using an MMR with integrated molten salt heat storage, providing a zero-carbon demonstration of district heat and power to campus buildings as part of a green campus initiative.

Quick primer on USNC’s MMR: The helium-cooled, TRISO-fueled MMR can be deployed as a single reactor or multiple linked reactors, integrated with a molten salt heat storage tank and delivering heat to an adjacent power conversion plant. The reactor’s molten salt heat storage can provide carbon-free high-temperature thermal energy for steam applications and for high-temperature experiments of interest to campus researchers. An MMR installation can provide about 10 to 100 MW of electrical power and/or process heat, depending on the chosen configuration.

USNC expects to deploy its first MMR, generating 15–30 MWt at a temperature of 650°C, at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ Chalk River site in Ontario.

Those looking for more information about the MMR may want to download and explore “Table Top MMR,” an interactive app developed for Android.

Research and training: In addition to supporting UIUC’s clean energy goals, the microreactor will serve as a valuable workforce training tool for a new generation of nuclear scientists, engineers, and operators, according to the university.

“Universities have nearly 80 years of pioneering nuclear reactor technology and safely operating nuclear reactors,” said Rizwan Uddin, head of the Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering. “Next-generation energy research facilities are critical to training the emerging clean-energy focused workforce.”

The new research and test reactor facility will offer UIUC staff and students a diverse set of opportunities for research: instrumentation and control, multi-physics validation, reactor prototype testing, micro-grid operations, cybersecurity, hydrogen production for transportation and energy storage, and other energy intensive, high-value products.

“Nuclear energy and microreactor technology are poised to play an important role in building a cleaner and more sustainable future,” said Rashid Bashir, dean of the Grainger College of Engineering. “This proposed reactor continues our proud tradition of leading academia in the pursuit of safe, transformative nuclear technologies and enables us to innovatively train and develop the next-generation workforce to lead the nation’s new economy.”

A first step: The submission of a letter of intent to the NRC is the first formal step toward pursuing a construction permit and ultimately obtaining an operating license. The project team has spent the past two years engaging with the university and the surrounding community, potential industry partners, and local, state, and federal governments.

“The University of Illinois provides a unique environment for innovation in research and education combined with the opportunity of commercial-level implementation on a scale that is ideal to our microreactor product,” said Francesco Venneri, chief executive officer of USNC. “We expect the licensing process to be exceptionally comprehensive and open to public review and comment, exactly as it should be.”

Public communication: During a September 2020 webinar forum for the university community—one of several such outreach events—Katy Huff joined other UIUC team members to describe the university’s plans, which included an application, prepared and submitted with USNC, for research and development funding through the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

“This technology is at the precipice of readiness for deployment,” Huff said, “and when presented with the opportunity to continue Illinois' leadership role in nuclear energy, our small team moved really quickly to spend our spring and summer crafting a proposal to DOE that a next-generation training, testing, and research reactor belongs at UIUC.”

Describing the safety and generation features of the MMR using everyday terms, Huff explained that the reactor would be “200 times smaller than a conventional nuclear system and, accordingly, it has 200 times less residual heat immediately after shutdown. Within a hundred seconds after shutdown, the MMR is producing half of a megawatt of thermal power. This is comparable to the power under the hood of a typical muscle car.”

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