Veto or no veto, UIUC forges ahead with microreactor plans

August 21, 2023, 3:00PMNuclear News
Conceptual art of USNC’s MMR, as proposed for construction on the UIUC campus. (Graphic: USNC)

It’s been almost 35 years since Illinois last added a nuclear power reactor to the grid (Braidwood-2, a pressurized water reactor operated by Constellation, reached commercial operation in October 1988). And it’s been 63 years since a research reactor reached initial criticality at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). The university’s TRIGA Mark II started up in August 1960 and was shut down in 1998. For about 25 years, UIUC—the flagship public university in a state that generates more power from nuclear energy than any other—has lacked an operating research reactor.

While Governor J. B. Pritzker’s recent veto of the bill that would have lifted a long-standing moratorium on new nuclear power plant construction in Illinois means the state must wait a little longer to hear an announcement of new power reactor construction, UIUC’s Nuclear, Plasma & Radiological Engineering (NPRE) Department is on course to have an advanced reactor in operation in 2028.

More moratorium: As Newswire reported last week, Pritzker on August 11 vetoed the bipartisan S.B. 76, which would have lifted Illinois’s decades-old moratorium on new nuclear power plant construction to allow the construction of reactors that fit the federal definition of “advanced nuclear reactor”—a definition that Pritzker said was “vague” and “overly broad.” The bill was introduced in January by Sen. Sue Rezin (R., 38th Dist.) and went to the governor’s desk in May. Rezin announced immediately following Pritzker’s veto that she had already filed paperwork to override the veto during an upcoming veto session.

Because the moratorium applies only to new commercial power reactors, plans for a university research reactor—even an advanced high-temperature gas-cooled microreactor like the Ultra Safe Nuclear Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) that UIUC wants to host in cooperation with USNC—are not affected by the moratorium, or by the governor’s veto.

When, not if: Caleb Brooks is an associate professor at UIUC in the NPRE Department and director of the Illinois Microreactor RD&D (IMRD2) Center.

“The Governor’s veto is a disappointing response to a widely bipartisan effort in the state to ensure Illinois remains a leader in clean energy technology,” Brooks told Nuclear News. “Although disappointing, clean energy advocates see the repeal of the state’s commercial nuclear power moratorium as a matter of when, not if—either through an override of the veto or in future legislative sessions.”

“The moratorium limits the construction of new power reactors and therefore does not have any impact on the Illinois Microreactor Demonstration Project, which will deploy advanced nuclear power technology as an advanced nonpower reactor [i.e., research reactor],” Brooks explained. “Through this project we will demonstrate the new paradigm of nuclear power enabled through decades of innovation in advanced reactor technology. It is clear that this project is critical to redeeming public perception of nuclear power.”

On a mission: The mission of the Illinois Microreactor Demonstration Project is “to de-risk advanced reactor deployment and enable a new paradigm of nuclear power through education, research, and at-scale demonstration,” according to Brooks.

“When deployed, the MMR will operate on UIUC’s campus with the capability to advance critical and enabling technologies required for advanced reactors to realize their full potential, while educating and training the workforce as a key step toward delivering on the technology’s promise,” Brooks said. “The project is currently under preapplication engagement with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with plans to submit our construction permit application within the next year. With continued support for the project, the reactor is targeting operation in 2028.”

The helium-cooled, TRISO-fueled microreactor would be sited near the university’s Abbott power station, which was originally commissioned in the 1940s as a coal-burning plant and now provides about 70–75 percent of the electricity and heat required by campus buildings from both coal and natural gas–fired generation. The reactor would be integrated with molten salt heat storage to provide high-temperature thermal energy for steam applications and experiments, including research in instrumentation and control, multiphysics validation, microgrid operations, and hydrogen production for transportation and energy storage.

While the licensing process for a research and test reactor differs from the commercial process, what UIUC (and USNC) learn through engagement with the NRC could help lead the way for future commercial license applications for the MMR, other microreactors, and other HTGRs. UIUC submitted a letter of intent to apply for a license in June 2021 and submitted a regulatory engagement plan to the NRC in December 2021. An article written by Brooks, featured in the April 2022 issue of Nuclear News, explains the project in more detail.

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