The U.S. Department of Energy selected Idaho National Laboratory to house a nuclear reactor that could make the country a leader in nuclear technology.
The DOE issued a record of decision last month to build a sodium-cooled fast test reactor, called a versatile test reactor, at Idaho National Laboratory, a federal lab that specializes in researching nuclear energy.
The project still requires funding from Congress, which the DOE requested for fiscal year 2023. A “freedom of information request by the Union of Concerned Scientists” estimated the reactor could cost between $3.9 billion to $6 billion, Reuters reported.
If built, the versatile test reactor would be the first of its kind to operate in the U.S. in nearly 30 years. Scientists would use the reactor to conduct experiments testing the endurance of materials. These materials could help build advanced nuclear reactors, which can generate clean energy. The U.S. will need reactors like this to reach its net-zero emissions by 2050 goal, according to the DOE.
Only Russia has comparable technology. If the U.S. had a versatile test reactor operating today, it would unquestionably be an international leader in nuclear technology, Kemal Pasamehmetoglu, executive director of the Versatile Test Reactor Project at Idaho National Laboratory, told the Idaho Statesman.
“We have all the other infrastructure in place,” Pasamehmetoglu said. “Now is the right time to support future innovations.”
But nuclear power is divisive, with critics pointing out high costs and the problem of nuclear waste. Edwin Lyman, director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, instead has advocated for converting existing reactors to have the capabilities of the versatile test reactor – a move he said could save billions and allow scientists to start research earlier.
Idaho’s Republican elected officials have mostly been in favor of bringing the versatile test reactor to the state.
Congressional delegates have said they support expanding nuclear research at Idaho National Laboratory. Sen. Mike Crapo introduced the versatile test reactor project through the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act in 2017, which Sen. Jim Risch co-sponsored.
“The work done at INL leads the way in maintaining U.S. leadership in nuclear innovation, and the VTR project sets an important milestone in enabling a robust future of advanced reactors,” Crapo told the Statesman in an email.
Meanwhile, Idaho U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, representing eastern Idaho and part of Boise, also “very much supports” the versatile test reactor, spokesperson Julia Horman told the Statesman. Rep. Russ Fulcher declined to comment.
“The VTR will be a valuable domestic testing facility for many advanced nuclear technologies, and Congressman Simpson will continue to work with his colleagues to support progress on these technologies and the VTR as soon as possible,” Horman said by email.
Gov. Brad Little also is backing the project. The Department of Energy’s record of decision is a great opportunity for the state, Little’s spokesperson Madison Hardy told the Statesman.
Reactor speeds up materials testing
Nuclear reactors rely on a process called fission, when an energy-dense atom splits into smaller particles and releases energy in the form of heat. The heat creates steam, which runs turbines and generates electricity.
There are two general types of reactors: fast reactors and light-water reactors.
The versatile test reactor is a fast reactor. While light-water reactors use materials such as water or graphite to reduce the energy of moving particles within the reactor, fast reactors use liquid metal, such as sodium, to better preserve the particles’ energy.
Fast reactors can be run at hotter temperatures because liquid metal has a higher boiling point than water. Thus, they can produce energy more efficiently.
The versatile test reactor, as the name suggests, is meant for testing. It offers an environment with high energy particles that can simulate months or years of degradation on advanced fuels, materials, instruments and sensors.
U.S. lost interest in nuclear power 30 years ago
Russia is interested in dominating fast reactor technology globally, Pasamehmetoglu said, so it has maintained a comparable test reactor.
The U.S. has not kept pace. Reactors similar to the versatile test reactor were shut down in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pasamehmetoglu said. The national consensus then was that the country would transition from nuclear power, as concerns about costs and interest in other energy sources shifted public perception.
While statistically, nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy production, nuclear accidents raised the public’s fears about nuclear energy, Pasamehmetoglu said. Three Mile Island, a now-closed nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, had partly melted down and released radioactive gases in 1979. The Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union killed dozens of workers in 1986.
But Pasamehmetoglu said there are also risks in not pursuing nuclear power. The U.S. is quickly losing ground to Russia and China in the realm of advanced nuclear technologies, he said, and many other countries will be operating nuclear reactors as part of their clean energy missions two or three decades from now.
Nuclear technology would improve the economy and national security, Pasamehmetoglu added.
Earlier this month, the German government suggested keeping its nuclear plants open to improve energy security in the face of uncertainty around the Russian gas supply. This move would be a reversal of its initial plans to shut down its last nuclear operations by the end of the year.
Over time, the U.S. has transitioned from the mindset of phasing out nuclear power to expanding it, Pasamehmetoglu said. In the next 10 to 15 years, Pasamehmetoglu hopes to see more nuclear energy technology that is tailored to regional needs instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, he said.
Climate change driving interest in nuclear energy
Climate change and the focus on reducing carbon footprints have been driving greater public acceptance of nuclear energy, Pasamehmetoglu said.
Producing nuclear energy does not directly emit greenhouse gases, said Indrajit Charit, a University of Idaho professor in the department of nuclear engineering and industrial management. Wind plants don’t work without wind, and solar plants don’t work without sunlight, he added. While these sources of energy can be expanded, nuclear power is highly reliable and provides continuous electricity.
Not only is nuclear energy clean, it’s powerful. One kilogram of uranium, used for nuclear energy, contains roughly the energy equivalent of 1 million kilograms of carbon, Pasamehmetoglu said.
Reactor would revitalize nuclear technologies
Idaho Falls resident Darrell Pfannenstiel worked with a sodium-cooled fast reactor similar to the versatile test reactor for nearly 20 years before it got shut down.
Pfannenstiel joined Argonne National Laboratory’s Idaho location – now incorporated into Idaho National Laboratory – in 1977 as a nuclear power plant operator. He worked with Experimental Breeder Reactor II until the U.S. government cut its funding in 1994.
The world of fast reactor technology was new and exciting. Pfannenstiel recalled a momentous test of EBR-II’s safety in 1986. Scientists simulated dangerous conditions that could lead to nuclear catastrophe, but the reactor shut down on its own, demonstrating a critical safety feature.
“But unfortunately the Chernobyl accident happened about a month later and sort of squelched all our glory, so to speak,” Pfannenstiel said.
After EBR-II shut down, Pfannenstiel continued working at Idaho National Laboratory. Today, attitudes have started to shift in favor of nuclear energy, he said – but the challenge is to help the public understand and accept nuclear power.
“I hope that we can get through the politics to get some facilities built,” Pfannenstiel said. “The science is there.”
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