ACU and Natura expect molten salt research reactor construction permit this fall

June 26, 2024, 12:01PMNuclear News
Concept art of ACU’s NEXT Lab. (Image: ACU)

Natura Resources, which is supporting the construction of a molten salt research reactor on the campus of Texas’s Abilene Christian University, announced in mid-June that it expects the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to complete its safety assessment and issue a permit for the nonpower test reactor in September.

The reactor, dubbed the Natura MSR-1, will be built with support from Natura, the Department of Energy, and a consortium of universities known as the Natura Resources Research Alliance. The consortium includes ACU, Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, and University of Texas–Austin. Operating at up to 1 MWt, the reactor would use HALEU dissolved in FLiBe salt (a mix of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride).

“The environmental assessment and upcoming completion of the safety evaluation for a construction permit are significant steps forward in the first deployment of the Natura MSR-1 system,” said Natura Resources founder and president Doug Robison. “This deployment at ACU will not only demonstrate successful licensure of a liquid-fueled molten salt reactor but will provide critical operational data that will help us meet the world's growing energy needs.”

Progress update: Natura’s announcement followed a June 12 letter from the NRC to Rusty Towell, director of the Nuclear Energy Experimental Testing Laboratory (NEXT Lab) at ACU, detailing the agency’s progress on the application review. ACU submitted its application in August 2022. That December, the NRC estimated that it could issue a construction permit in May 2024. According to the NRC’s June 12 letter, “ACU needed additional time to further consider and refine certain design aspects of its MSRR,” and the NRC issued requests for additional information in December 2023. Based on ACU’s response, the NRC now estimates completion of a final safety evaluation and construction permit issuance in September 2024.

Groundbreaking on the Science & Engineering Research Center (SERC) at ACU, which will house the NEXT Lab and reactor, took place in March 2022, and in August 2023 that construction was completed.

A commercial future: Once the research reactor is operational, Natura anticipates gaining “real-time operational data to support commercial reactor development.” That commercial product would be a “small modular MSR system that will be fabricated on an assembly line and shipped to site via truck or rail.” Natura reports that “the regulatory engagement plan for this system has been submitted to the NRC and we will soon begin raising capital to support the next steps of engineering and design for this system.”

Natura wants to meet future electricity demand in Texas and beyond, and cites recent testimony delivered by ERCOT chief executive officer Pablo Vegas and others in the Texas Senate Committee on Business & Commerce that grid demand in Texas will grow from about 85 gigawatts to 150 gigawatts within six years—a 75 percent increase.

Abilene-based Natura Resources was established by Robison, a third-generation oilman and member of the ACU Board of Trustees, according to ACU, which also reports that “Natura has agreed to funding of $30.5 million over the next three years in support of NEXTRA’s mission.”

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