DOE details state of university reactors in report to Congress

April 10, 2024, 12:00PMNuclear News

Energy secretary Jennifer Granholm submitted a Department of Energy report to the U.S. Congress on April 8 detailing the state of research reactors at U.S. universities and the potential need to upgrade or build additional reactors, including advanced nuclear reactors and test facilities.

Released through the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, the report, Needs for University Nuclear Reactor Refurbishments, Upgrades, and New Reactors, was requested by Congress through the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act, which provided up to $12 million to revitalize existing university nuclear research infrastructure.

Synopsis: The following are described in the 13-page report:

  • The current state of research reactors at U.S. universities, including their technologies, utilization, and needed maintenance and upgrades.
  • Advanced reactor research and workforce development needs not met by existing domestic capabilities.
  • Preliminary planning information for establishing new advanced university research reactors, including a discussion of their costs, potential areas of government support, and means by which the DOE would manage the government cost and risk if it were to support such projects.

The need: Noting that the current 25 operating research reactors are between about 30 and 70 years old, the report maintains that “on-campus reactors offer unique advantages in terms of hands-on education and research experience in running small-scale experiments that would be impractical to perform at larger, power-producing reactor facilities.”

Finding replacement equipment and components is a challenge for this aging research reactor fleet, the report notes, adding that projects to upgrade reactor infrastructure face a combination of regulatory, acquisition, and cost challenges.

To revitalize university nuclear research infrastructure, the DOE is using a portion of the $12 million from the Consolidated Appropriations Act for a “new approach that would encourage consortia and partnerships to address infrastructure challenges holistically across institutions.”

The report, however, conceded that even with such new approaches, revitalizing the current infrastructure to the level needed to meet modern challenges would require “significant, sustained investments.”

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