Versatile Test Reactor (VTR)

  • Frequently Asked Questions | Versatile Test Reactor

DOE launched the Versatile Test Reactor Program following studies that analyzed the need for a research reactor that could test materials, fuels and other components at higher neutron energies and neutron fluxes than what is available today.

An Idaho National Laboratory-led team, which includes Argonne National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Savannah River National Laboratory, universities, and industry partners, is collaborating on the program.

In February 2019, VTR cleared Critical Decision 0, the first in a series of project approvals required by DOE Order 413.3B. To pass CD-0, a project must demonstrate a mission need requiring investment. DOE will prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to analyze alternatives and study the impacts of a VTR.

What is a test reactor?

Test reactors produce neutrons to test how fuels, materials, components, and instrumentation will perform if used in commercial power reactors. They provide valuable data about how these components hold up under harsh conditions such as extreme heat and radiation during well-controlled experiments tailored to design and safety needs. This data enables scientists and engineers to design and license safer, longer-lasting and more efficient fuels and components. For example, researchers have used such data to improve nuclear fuels and materials, resulting in nearly doubling the current fleet’s capacity factor from the 1970s through today.

What advanced technologies would a Versatile Test Reactor foster?

A Versatile Test Reactor would foster experiments with much higher neutron energy and flux compared to the 35-plus research reactors currently operating at U.S. universities and national labs. Creating a fast neutron test environment is essential for the development of the next generation of nuclear technologies and reactor designs, many of which rely on fast neutrons to create the sustained chain reaction that generates heat.

These advanced technologies are very different than those in the existing commercial fleet of nuclear reactors operating in the U.S. They use thermal or slow neutrons to create a chain reaction to produce the heat to make low-carbon electricity. Because of high neutron flux, accelerated materials testing to support thermal reactor needs also is envisioned for a VTR.

Why is a VTR needed?

The United States has long been a leader in the development of nuclear technologies, operational standards and regulations and because of that, other countries have adopted our standards, which has led to the safe and secure operations of nuclear power plants around the world.

Today, there is no fast spectrum irradiation capability in the United States to support the advanced reactor research and development occurring at national labs and in the private sector. Without it, the U.S. will not be able to regain and sustain its leadership role in the development of the next generation of nuclear power reactors. Many heavily populated and developing countries are investing in nuclear power plants to help provide low-carbon, reliable electricity to their citizens. U.S. technology leadership in the area of advanced reactors is critically important both from economics (market share) and national security (international safety and security protocols) perspectives.

Why can’t we use existing U.S. test reactors?

Existing test reactors, like the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) at INL and the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are thermal neutron reactors. Modifications can be made to simulate fast neutron conditions and limited boosting of fast neutron fluxes in thermal reactors, but irradiation conditions (in terms of neutron flux and energy spectrum) are not sufficiently prototypical to create data required in a formal fuels and materials development and qualification program for fast reactor designs.

Can this testing be done somewhere else?

Not in the U.S. The only capability for testing fast spectrum irradiation now accessible to U.S. companies is the Bor-60 reactor in the Russian Federation. U.S. researchers and developers encounter multiple barriers when seeking access to Russian Federation reactors, including export control concerns for materials and fuels testing, intellectual property rights, and international transportation issues.

Has the need for a VTR been studied?

Yes, it has. DOE’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee studied the issue and released a report in February 2017, recommending “that DOE-NE proceed immediately with preconceptual design planning activities to support a new test reactor (including cost and schedule estimates).” Multiple advanced reactor developers, including TerraPower, Westinghouse and Oklo, submitted letters in support of the NEAC report. (NEAC was established in 1998 to provide independent advice to DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy on complex science and technical issues that arise in the planning, managing, and implementing of the federal nuclear energy program. Committee members include representatives from universities, industry, foreign nations, and national laboratories.)

In addition to the NEAC report, researchers from INL, Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory interviewed multiple domestic reactor vendors in 2016 to assess overall industry test reactor needs, including TerraPower, Westinghouse Electric Company and General Atomics. The report, issued in January 2017, states that “all survey responders indicated they would utilize irradiation services that a fast-spectrum reactor can provide with rapid accumulation of displacements per atom under prototypical conditions for qualification of fuel, qualification of fuel manufacturing processes, extension of the useful lifetime of cladding and structural materials under irradiation, study of corrosion behavior of materials and advanced coatings under irradiation, and demonstration of fuel performance.”

Has a decision been made to build a VTR?

No, it has not. DOE is expected to decide in 2022 whether to proceed with building a fast spectrum test reactor in the United States. This will be based on design, cost, schedule, and other information gathered and analyzed over the next few years. Congress will then decide whether to appropriate the funding necessary to complete the construction.

How much will a VTR cost?

Detailed cost estimates are not yet available. However, documentation submitted for CD-0 puts the estimate between $3-6 billion based on similar projects. When the analysis of alternatives and conceptual design are completed, more accurate cost estimates are expected with a narrow cost range.

When will a VTR be built?

According to the current schedule, final design will be completed, and construction would commence in 2022. The target date for a Versatile Test Reactor to be fully operational is 2026, subject to an adequate level of funding appropriations by Congress. The range for the startup date is estimated to be 2026 to 2030.

Where will a VTR be located?

A location has not yet been finalized although specific sites will be evaluated as part of the NEPA process.

How will a VTR be authorized/licensed?

The test reactor would be authorized by the U.S. Department of Energy, just like other test reactors (TREAT, ATR, HFIR).

Is this an attempt to demonstrate a sodium-cooled power reactor?

No, it is not. VTR is a test reactor designed for experimentation. The proposed design does utilize sodium because it is the most mature fast reactor technology and is based on GE-Hitachi’s PRISM reactor design. However, the core of the reactor is being designed to provide the flexibility for well-controlled experiments to support other fast reactor concepts.

Is the intent to try to close the fuel cycle through reprocessing?

If spent fuel is reprocessed and material recovered to send back to the reactor as nuclear fuel, it is referred to as a closed fuel cycle. If the fuel is used “once through” and not reprocessed, it is referred to as an open-fuel cycle. There are no plans to close the fuel cycle using the VTR. However, small quantities of fuels and materials needed to close the fuel cycle in the future may be tested using the VTR.

What will happen with the spent fuel?

The fuel will be processed after irradiation to remove the sodium and stored on site until a repository becomes available.