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Why does the United States need a fast test reactor?

There’s a growing interest in advanced nuclear energy


Private companies have already invested more than $1 billion in new reactor designs that will be smaller, more affordable, highly flexible and extremely safe. So safe, in fact, that in the event of a problem, human intervention is not necessary.

More than 40 U.S. companies are already working on these incredible reactor designs that could help power our homes, provide clean water, and decarbonize energy-intensive industries.

There’s just one problem …

The United States doesn’t have a facility to effectively test and qualify the materials needed to develop some of these advanced reactors.

That’s why it is imperative that the U.S. Department of Energy moves forward with its plans to build a fast test reactor named the versatile test reactor, or VTR.

What is the Versatile Test Reactor?

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In February 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy announced its plans to build a VTR. This new research reactor will be capable of performing irradiation testing at much higher neutron energy fluxes than what is currently available today.

The United States has long been a leader in the development of nuclear technologies. However, as there is currently no fast neutron testing capability in the U.S. to support advanced reactor research and development, U.S. industry has gone overseas for this capability. The Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) is intended to fill this long-standing gap, leveraging previous and existing U.S. government and industry investments in nuclear reactors to accelerate the design and construction process, using proven nuclear reactor technology to create a world-class test facility.

The VTR, tightly coupled with the rest of our research infrastructure, will be the state-of-the-art science and technology lab for advanced nuclear energy.

It will feature a sodium-cooled fast reactor that uses high energy neutrons to test and develop advanced reactor fuels and materials.

Fast reactors use fast-moving neutrons to operate at higher temperatures and lower pressures. They can be cooled by molten salt, liquid metal or helium gas.

This leads to inherent safety features, higher operating efficiencies and less waste.


Browse through the most commonly asked questions about the Versatile Test Reactor, and the details surrounding the program.

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The VTR Program was launched in response to requests from U.S. companies investing in and developing advanced reactors that require different testing facilities than the commercial nuclear power technology in use today.

VTR, Versatile Test Reactor partnerships, national labs, advanced nuclear, fast reactor

In FY-18, Congress allocated $35 million to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy to begin developing a conceptual design, cost estimate, and schedule for a fast spectrum test reactor to support advanced nuclear reactor research and development. Another $65 million was set aside in the FY-19 budget.


What’s Next?

In November 2019, Battelle Energy Alliance, LLC (BEA), the managing and operating contractor for the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho Falls, Idaho, issued an Expression of Interest (EOI) seeking industry stakeholders interested in forming a partnership to achieve maximum progress in deployment of the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR).

The scope of such a Partnership could include but not be limited to the development and deployment of a new fast neutron testing capability (VTR), other uses of VTR capabilities beyond just 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.

As a result of the EOI, the request for proposal (RFP) for design and construction of the VTR was issued. Offeror responses are due June 1, 2020. The project anticipates awarding a blanket master contract that covers the overall design and construction effort and then issue releases for specific scope. The RFP is anticipated to be awarded by September 24, 2020.

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Project Timeline

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Why Nuclear?

Energy and electricity demands are increasing worldwide. Meanwhile, nearly a billion people today have no access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. Nuclear energy will be part of an integrated solution going forward, helping supply carbon-free power to an energy-hungry world.


  • According to the World Health Organization, exposure to air pollution causes up to 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide per year through cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Using clean electrical generation such as nuclear will help save lives.
  • Nuclear power electrical generation has a very low impact to the environment compared to other sources at similar scale.
  • 20% of America’s electricity is produced from 98 nuclear reactors in 30 states. These reactors provide more clean energy to the grid than any other energy source, accounting for 55% of the country’s clean energy electricity production.


  • The ability to positively impact global nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation policy relies upon ensuring a robust nuclear program.
  • In the U.S., nuclear power plants operated at full capacity more than 92% of the time in 2018 – making it the most reliable energy source in America.


  • The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates each nuclear plant employs 530 employees, and for every 100 direct jobs at a nuclear facility, the local economy produces an additional 66 jobs and another 726 jobs throughout America.
  • The global market for nuclear generating capability is estimated to be $1 trillion. Nuclear power generation is projected to grow 73% by 2040, primarily driven by developing countries, especially China and India.
  • Nuclear power provides a reliable energy supply at a reasonable cost, an important factor in U.S. citizens’ quality of life and industrial and economic competitiveness.

For more information, please see the fact sheet below.

Download Fact Sheet


The VTR is already helping to address challenges faced by reactor innovators today through development of innovative sensors and monitoring systems, digital engineering approaches, enhanced modeling, and new measurement techniques.


The VTR provides a platform to accelerate nuclear technology development for today’s light water reactors and tomorrow’s advanced reactors by conducting research in eight key areas:

  • Molten Salt Reactors
  • Gas-cooled Fast Reactors
  • Lead-cooled Fast Reactors
  • Sodium-cooled Fast Reactors
  • Structural Materials Testing
  • Rabbit Systems (for rapid specimen/test insertion and retrieval)
  • Digital Engineering & Virtual Design and Construction
  • Instrumentation & Controls


Eighteen universities, nine private entities/industry partners and six national laboratories are collaborating within the eight key areas. Each area is led by a national laboratory technical expert and is supported by other national laboratory personnel, university partners and industry partners.

The objective is to cover the wide range of potential experiment designs that meet the needs of relevant stakeholders and potential users.


In general, the VTR will operate as a national user facility. Users will be provided access to the VTR, technical expertise from experienced scientists and engineers, and assistance with experiment design, assembly, safety analysis and examination. Access to user facilities is typically provided through open and competitive review processes. The Nuclear Science User Facility (NSUF) will be used as the model for scientific experiments. However, not all proposed experiments will be subject to a peer reviewed competitive process.

Experiments important to national programs and important to addressing emerging needs in the nuclear industry will receive a higher priority. International experiments covered under international collaboration agreements will also be a priority.

Other users will be accommodated with full cost-recovery based on availability of experimental positions.

For more information, please see the fact sheet below.

Digital Engineering

Digital engineering describes a holistic approach to the design of a complex system: Design using models/data instead of documents, integration of data across models, and the culture change across project teams to realize significant risk reduction on construction cost and schedule.

In the modern world, megaprojects represent the sort of ambitious efforts that can change the world: better airplanes, integrated defense systems, new nuclear reactor systems. The benefits of such projects are enormous, but the challenges can be daunting. Primary concerns are cost and schedule overruns. Undetected design errors can cascade into construction woes that can put a project over budget or behind schedule. Robust digital engineering helps prevent such calamities. By coordinating design, engineering and construction, the approach keeps cost and schedule on track while dramatically reducing overall program risk.

DID YOU KNOW? The cost to correct a defect during the conceptual design is 1,000x less than correcting a defect during operations.

VTR Reactor Facility  scaled


Digital engineering (DE) embodies a deliberate approach to integrating information for the life cycle of a megaproject. DE uses digital information management systems to design, engineer, build, operate and maintain complex megaprojects. Engineering teams can migrate to new digital engineering systems by developing new data models, data sharing methods, tool architectures and processes.


As first-of-a-kind commercial and test reactors are being planned in the United States, managing construction cost, timing and performance will be essential to maintain U.S. competitiveness. As a result of proven benefits in other industries, Idaho National Laboratory launched a DE program in 2018 to support new reactor projects such as the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR).


INL is implementing DE strategies to predict reactor performance and design issues early in the process, minimizing cascading risk. Numerous advances in the VTR design and engineering processes have already been achieved using DE.

Video Gallery

Investing in the future of nuclear energy

This presentation outlines the role that a fast neutron spectrum test reactor will provide in the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies and its role in supporting U.S. leadership in the global nuclear energy development.

Virtual tour of the Versatile Test Reactor

This presentation provides a 3-D compilation of engineering drawings from the conceptual design under consideration to fulfill the Department of Energy’s need to provide a source of fast neutron spectrum testing capabilities.

Power reactor vs test reactor

This video discusses the differences between nuclear power producing reactors and test reactors.

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Environmental Impact Statement

In addition to the EOI, DOE is developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to ensure that all environmental factors are considered before making a final decision to move forward with the project. A Notice of Intent to prepare the EIS for VTR was published on the Federal Register on August 5, 2019. If you would like your name added to the mailing list or request copies of the EIS when it is published, please send an email or letter to the following address:

  1. Email:  EIS@nuclear.energy.gov
  2. Send mail to:
    James Lovejoy
    Document Manager
    U.S. Department of Energy
    Idaho Operations Office
    1955 Fremont Avenue, MS 1235
    Idaho Falls, Idaho 83415