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 the VTR Expression of Interest: Partnership for VTR?

Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA) is requesting that industry stakeholders who are interested in partnering with the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop and deploy the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) notify BEA through an “Expression of Interest (EOI).”

 

BEA currently manages Idaho National Laboratory and operates the INL Site, and BEA is managing the execution of the VTR project on behalf of DOE. The potential partnership would be structured under a cost-sharing arrangement. Further information on the scope and how to submit an expression of interest is contained in the announcement, located at: https://beta.sam.gov/opp/cfa132f44cd646779f9e689243e4ee6d/view#general

What is the scope for this Expression of Interest?

The scope for the EOI is to explore any interest in a partnership that must include the development and deployment of a new fast neutron testing capability consistent with the currently approved mission need for VTR.

 

Other uses of VTR capabilities beyond the testing mission of VTR — such as advanced reactors design and licensing, reducing the cost and schedule risk of new nuclear plant design and construction, and other compatible uses of VTR capabilities — are also within the scope the EOI is exploring. Contributions to the partnership the EOI is exploring include funding, components, and in-kind services. A firm requirement is that the partnership will not delay or increase the cost of the design and construction of the VTR as stated in the Mission Need document at

https://www.energy.gov/ne/nuclear-reactor-technologies/versatile-test-reactor

Interested parties who respond will be considered for a future Request for Proposal (RFP) that will solicit specific details of the proposed partnership. Upon evaluation of the proposals and subsequent contract negotiations, a partnership will be structured under a cost-sharing arrangement using a mutually agreeable contracting mechanism available to DOE.

What is the anticipated timing for the potential partnership?

As stated in the EOI, responses are due on Jan. 10, 2020. While a rapid evaluation of the responses to EOI is planned, depending on the number and complexity of the responses, it may take until Feb. 14, 2020, to issue the RFP.

 

BEA expects to receive the proposals eight weeks after the RFP is issued, with the objective of completing negotiations and starting the partnership by Oct. 1, 2020, via issuing the first statement of work for the preliminary and final design phase of the project on that date.

The scope seems broad – why is that?

The VTR is necessary to meet the critical mission need for accelerated testing and qualification of advanced nuclear fuels, materials, instrumentation and sensors to support the development of next generation advanced reactor technologies being actively pursued by industry and other stakeholders.

 

VTR’s testing mission remains unchanged. However, there may be additional areas where VTR design and construction might benefit the advanced nuclear energy industry in achieving its demonstration and commercialization goals at the system, subsystem or component levels.

Additional benefits to the private sector may be in the areas of engineering design, licensing and construction processes. It makes sense that we take a broad approach and engage industry in order to identify innovative ideas that will maximize the public and private benefits without impacting the primary mission.

Can an interested party propose to change the design of the VTR — or decide to build a different type of reactor altogether?

No. DOE laid out the Mission Need Statement for the VTR and is completing the conceptual design that meets the mission requirements. Any expression of interest will need to ensure the VTR design meets the mission requirements and not impact the cost and schedule of VTR. However, minor changes at the subsystem or component level could be acceptable in order to secure a partnership with the private sector.

If an interested party proposes to produce and sell electricity generated by the VTR, would that be possible?

The Versatile Test Reactor would be authorized and operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, just like other test reactors (TREAT, ATR, HFIR). Based on the current U.S. law, an NRC license is required for electricity production as a commercial product directly from a nuclear reactor. An NRC license will not be pursued for VTR. Electricity generation to support additional R&D without interfering with the commercial grid may be a potential interest.

If an interested party proposes to use heat generated by the VTR, would that be possible?

Energy generated within VTR will be transferred to the air via heat exchangers. Any proposal that makes use of that energy without impacting the operation and safety envelope of VTR and that is consistent with the government contracting processes will be considered. The contracting and partnership details will have to be worked out in the request for proposal and subsequent contract negotiation stages.

Doesn’t this mean that DOE will be choosing a “winner” for advanced reactor technologies?

Certainly not. The versatility to support the development of multiple advanced reactor types remains a critical requirement for VTR. The VTR provides a platform to accelerate nuclear technology development for advanced energy technologies including molten salt reactors, gas-cooled fast reactors, lead-cooled fast reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors.

Certainly not. The versatility to support the development of multiple advanced reactor types remains a critical requirement for VTR. The VTR provides a platform to accelerate nuclear technology development for advanced energy technologies including molten salt reactors, gas-cooled fast reactors, lead-cooled fast reactors and sodium-cooled fast reactors. That mission will remain unchanged, and developers of any of these technologies will be able to access the VTR to pursue progress in their preferred advanced reactor design. However, the private sector must decide if additional value can be gained through the VTR design and construction effort to support their specific technology and, if so, invest in those areas through an appropriate partnership model that is mutually beneficial.

Who is building the Versatile Test Reactor?

DOE is expected to decide in summer 2021 whether to proceed with a fast spectrum test reactor in the United States at the selected site with the completion of the NEPA process. Subsequently, Critical Decision 2 and 3 (scheduled for FY-2022) approves the preliminary/final design and authorizes the start of the construction.

DOE is expected to decide in summer 2021 whether to proceed with a fast spectrum test reactor in the United States at the selected site with the completion of the NEPA process. Subsequently, Critical Decision 2 and 3 (scheduled for FY-2022) approves the preliminary/final design and authorizes the start of the construction. This will be based on design, cost, schedule, and other information gathered and analyzed over the next few years. Congress will also need to decide whether to appropriate the funding necessary to complete the construction.

If DOE decides to proceed with building the VTR, DOE will subcontract for the design and construction. The Expression of Interest is the first opportunity for industry stakeholders to explore partnering on a cost-sharing basis on design and construction.

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

What is the role of GE-Hitachi/Bechtel team in designing and constructing the VTR?

GE-Hitachi/Bechtel team was selected through a competitive process to develop the conceptual design for the VTR. This work will be completed when the preliminary/final design phase of VTR commences (after critical decision 1 is achieved and capital acquisition funding is available starting in FY-2021. Like any other industry stakeholder, they may choose to submit an Expression of Interest, which will then be considered in the same manner as all other expressions of interest received.

Can international entities respond to the EOI?

Yes. International entities that belong to a country with an approved civilian nuclear energy collaboration agreement are encouraged to respond to the EOI.

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.