ARDP recipient Southern announces molten salt fast reactor demonstration plans

November 19, 2021, 9:29AMNuclear News
The Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment will be built at Idaho National Laboratory to demonstrate criticality in a fast-spectrum salt-cooled reactor within five years. (Image: Southern Company)

Southern Company and the Department of Energy have announced an agreement to demonstrate the world’s first fast-spectrum salt reactor in collaboration with TerraPower and a host of other participants at Idaho National Laboratory. With this announcement, at least four of the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Project awardees featuring four different coolants—helium (X-energy), sodium (TerraPower), fluoride salt (Kairos Power), and chloride salt (Southern, with TerraPower)—have announced a site and a commitment to build either a full-size demo reactor or a scaled-down experimental reactor.

The basics: The cooperative agreement announced yesterday will advance TerraPower’s Molten Chloride Fast Reactor (MCFR). Southern Company will lead the collaborative effort between TerraPower, INL, Core Power, Orano Federal Services, the Electric Power Research Institute, and 3M Company.

The Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment (MCRE) is expected to provide crucial operational data for fast-spectrum salt reactors to enable the use of the technology in a net-zero future. The project will inform the design, licensing, and operation of a future MCFR demonstration reactor. It will be supported by a five-year, $170 million cost-shared funding agreement.

Lauren Lathem, a principal research engineer at Southern R&D who is involved in the project, confirmed to Nuclear News that MCRE will be less than 1 MW and will be designed, built, and operated within the five-year term of the award.

“We are excited to be working on such an important technology with this impressive team,” Lathem said. “This Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment is a key next step in the strategy to advance TerraPower’s Molten Chloride Fast Reactor, which we see as one of the most promising fourth-generation nuclear technologies that will enable economy-wide decarbonization.”

DOE hedges its bets: The 10 reactor designs chosen for cost-shared funding under the ARDP collectively represent a wide range of coolants, fuel forms, and sizes.

Southern’s MCRE was announced as one of five ARDP Risk Reduction Awards in December 2020. The other Risk Reduction Awards went to Kairos Power, which is siting its demo-scale Hermes fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactor in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Westinghouse Nuclear, for its eVinci microreactor; BWXT Advanced Technologies, for its BWXT Advanced Nuclear Reactor, envisioned as a transportable microreactor; and Holtec’s SMR-160, a light-water-cooled small modular reactor.

The first ARDP awardees to be announced were X-energy and TerraPower. X-energy is planning to build its Xe-100 modular high-temperature gas reactor near Richland, Wash., while TerraPower announced this week that it would site its first Natrium sodium fast reactor in Kemmerer, Wyo., where it will replace a retiring coal plant.

Three other nuclear technology developers received Advanced Reactor Concepts 2020 funds from the ARDP program in December 2020: ARC Nuclear, General Atomics, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Molten salt advantage: Molten chloride fast reactors could, like other advanced reactor designs, offer performance and economic benefits including flexible, reliable electricity, as well as high-grade process heat and thermal storage for difficult-to-decarbonize industrial markets.

The molten chloride that would circulate through the MCRE—a transparent liquid at reactor operating temperatures—would contain dissolved fuel and serve as both coolant and fuel carrier. As fission heat increases the reactor and coolant temperature, the liquid fuel mixture expands, effectively moving the fissile fuel nuclei farther apart to passively slow the fission chain reaction without operator actions.

At INL: Over the past 71 years, INL has been the home of 52 reactor demonstration projects. The MCRE will have company, as that number is set to increase in the next decade. Oklo, NuScale Power, and the Defense Department are also set to build in Idaho, and they will be aided by INL-based programs, including the National Reactor Innovation Center. For more about the lab’s infrastructure and the people at INL who are working with private industry, universities, and other federal stakeholders to demonstrate and deploy advanced commercial reactors, visit Newswire to read “Road to advanced nuclear: How DOE and industry collaborations are paving the way for advanced nuclear reactors.”

An MCRE project initiation ceremony held on October 20 in Idaho Falls was attended by representatives from Southern Company, TerraPower, INL, and the DOE. During the event, INL Director John Wagner said, “The core of INL’s heritage is demonstrating nuclear reactors, and this opportunity to bring the first-ever fast-spectrum molten salt reactor critical is remarkable and significant. INL is honored to be part of this historic public-private collaboration.”

In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, an environmental review of the MCRE will be completed before final design and construction begin.

Team commitment: “Southern Company is committed to advancing next-generation nuclear as part of a comprehensive strategy to deliver clean, safe, reliable, affordable energy to the customers we’re privileged to serve,” said Mark Berry, Southern Company’s vice president of R&D. “The Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment will support the commercialization of a revolutionary technology on a timescale that addresses climate change benchmarks and delivers on Southern Company’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We’re honored to work with DOE and our many industry team members on this truly groundbreaking experiment.”

Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO, said, “Our past work with Southern Company has led to important experimental milestones and to the establishment of unique test facilities necessary to validate molten salt reactor technology. Southern Company’s leadership and experience in reactor licensing and operation has been essential. The Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment will continue this important work in a critical reactor experiment, leading to the successful development of low-cost, clean energy for the future.”

Through a public-private partnership in 2015, Southern Company and TerraPower were awarded approximately $40 million from the DOE to build the integrated infrastructure necessary to support early development of MCFR technology.


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