In the classic baseball film “Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) builds a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, adhering to ghostly whispers that if he builds it “he” will come.
Borrowing from the same script, the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) is now designing and constructing two fields, in the form of nuclear testing facilities known as test beds at Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
NRIC undertook this effort with the understanding that if test facilities are built nuclear reactor developers will be eager to use them.
Building the future with the past
While nuclear technology is key for a carbon-free energy future, one challenge in developing advanced reactors has been the ability to test new technologies. The enormous cost of facilities to safely test nuclear innovations has inhibited innovation.
INL has two facilities that are being remodeled and retrofitted to meet the demands of new technologies. These facilities, known as DOME and LOTUS, are the first advanced reactor test beds of their kind. “The original facilities that were built in the 1960s are now being repurposed with modifications,” said Aaron Balsmeier, chief engineer for NRIC. And those modifications are intended to help companies defray testing costs and accelerate the testing schedules.
“There is no other place that allows the opportunity to test and then learn from those tests,” said technical program manager Troy Burnett. “That testing allows us to reduce costs and the time needed to get a safe product that provides our future power needs.”
The DOME (Demonstration and Operation of Microreactor Experiments) Test Bed
Located at INL’s Materials and Fuels Complex, the NRIC-DOME is an iconic 80-foot-tall concrete and steel structure that housed the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II until 1994. DOME will host fueled experiments producing up to 20 megawatts of energy that are still small enough to fit on the bed of an 18-wheeler. The fueled experiments will be installed in the DOME dome through a large loading zone that can accept trailer-mounted containers.
Electrical, communication, instrument air and other utilities will also be provided to the test bed to be connected to experimental systems. “Early in the design process, NRIC interacted with several advanced reactor developers to gather requirements and develop a flexible test bed design to host a number of different experiments,” said Brad Tomer, acting director and chief operating officer of NRIC.
Historically, it’s been cost-prohibitive for private companies to construct their own testing facilities for testing advanced reactors. Most of the cost is in concrete and steel, which have very long useful lives, even if the pilot plant only needs to run for a few months to resolve integration risks.
NRIC has now completed the final design for DOME, and it’s expected to be ready for testing in 2026.
The LOTUS (Laboratory for Operations and Testing in the U.S.) Test Bed
The LOTUS test bed is another facility that once hosted an experimental reactor, making it ideal for testing experimental concepts before scaling to larger commercial systems.
LOTUS consists of a cylindrical reactor cell area, control room, and a full complement of safety, support, and ancillary systems. The operational data produced by the fueled experiments will validate modeling and analysis of future reactors.
This facility has been approved for work with high security materials, which will enable experiments in LOTUS to be roughly 1/10th the size of commercial designs that will use low-enriched uranium, explains Phillip Schoonover, senior technical program manager for NRIC.
The first user of LOTUS is expected to be the Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment, a partnership between TerraPower and Southern Company funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.
NRIC has completed the conceptual design of LOTUS, and it is expected to be operational as soon as the end of 2027.