Resources

The Versatile Test Reactor is the first new test reactor the U.S. Department of Energy has pursued in 30 years. Once operational, it will be a one-of-a-kind facility that can perform tests and research simply not possible with DOE’s other test reactors.

Here, you can learn more about the VTR, the partners contributing to its development and the importance of developing this scientific research capability in the U.S.

Resources

The Versatile Test Reactor is the first new test reactor the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has pursued in 30 years. Once operational, it will be a one-of-a-kind facility that can perform tests and research simply not possible with DOE’s other test reactors.

Here, you can learn more about the VTR, the partners contributing to its development and the importance of developing this scientific research capability in the U.S.

VTR In the News

U.S. official pushes nuclear energy as economic, environmental boost
Associated Press, October 15, 2020

Work on test reactor seen boosting US nuclear industry
Reuters Events Nuclear, October 6, 2020

Versatile Test Reactor Moves into Engineering Design Phase
POWER Magazine, September 24, 2020

DOE: Test reactor project ready for next phase
Post Register, September 23, 2020

Contract talks under way for US test reactor
World Nuclear News, August 25, 2020

FAQ

What is VTR?

The Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) is a one-of-a-kind scientific user facility capable of performing  large-scale,  fast-spectrum neutron irradiation tests and experiments simply not possible today. It will support research, development and demonstration of  innovative  nuclear  energy technologies (with a focus on fuels, materials and sensors in representative environments) that can supply the world with  abundant carbon-free  energy.  With the addition of  VTR, the United States will again  lead the world in nuclear energy research, safety and security while also supporting  U.S.  industry partners as they commercialize new technologies.

What is a test reactor? What will VTR do?

Test reactors are scientific research tools. They provide intense neutron fluxes that are used to simulate prototypical conditions or conduct accelerated neutron damage irradiation studies. Real-time measurements and subsequent post-irradiation examination techniques provide valuable information on how fuels, materials, components and instrumentation withstand the extreme conditions inside nuclear power plants and even future fusion reactors. This enables scientists and engineers to design safer, longer-lasting and more efficient fuels, materials and components for nuclear energy systems. 

Why do we need VTR? Why not use existing test reactors?

Existing test reactors, like the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory and the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are thermal neutron reactors and are not capable of sustaining neutrons at concentrations and speeds high enough to perform accelerated testing of innovative nuclear technologies under development.

Is there anywhere else this research can be done?

Not in the U.S. The only viable location for testing fast-spectrum irradiation currently accessible to U.S. companies is the BOR-60 reactor in the Russian Federation. U.S. researchers and developers encounter significant barriers when seeking access to Russian Federation reactors, including export control concerns for materials and fuels testing, intellectual property rights, quality assurance and transportation issues.  

What research or technologies will VTR support?

With four cartridge test loops, a rapid-shuttle test loop also known as a “rabbit,” multiple positions for standard tests and possible insertion of dismountable test elements in any of the fuel positions in the reactor core, VTR will be able to run several types of tests simultaneously, including experiments for:

·         Molten salt reactors

·         Sodium-cooled fast reactors

·         Lead-cooled fast reactors

·         Gas-cooled fast reactors

·         Structural materials testing for any reactor technology, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) existing fleet of reactors

·         Instrumentation, sensors and controls

    Why invest in new nuclear energy technologies when nuclear power plants are closing in the U.S.?

    Nuclear power plants in the U.S. are closing largely because operators are struggling to compete with the influx of cheap natural gas; however, investment in nuclear energy around the globe is rising. Countries such as India and China are building nuclear reactors to bring clean, reliable and abundant electricity to areas without it. Other countries are investing in nuclear technologies to not only provide electricity and clean water, but also to provide a clean source of high-temperature process heat needed for industrial applications. To participate in this lucrative export market, U.S. companies are developing innovative and right-sized advanced nuclear reactor systems that can help supply the world with clean, carbon-free power.

    I’ve read that some new reactor designs are nearing the demonstration stage. If that is the case, why do we need a new test reactor?

    Some of the new reactor designs nearing the demonstration stage can now be built because they are based on proven light-water reactor technologies or technologies developed using the existing test reactors for thermal spectrum designs. Additionally, other advanced reactor concepts have been operated as prototypes. In the long run, many of the advanced reactor technologies will benefit from the kinds of innovative fuels, materials, instruments and sensors that can only be developed through the use of fast-spectrum-irradiation capabilities provided by VTR for continuous innovation and improvements.  

    For example, VTR will provide a parallel role that the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory has played for the past 50 years for light-water reactors by providing an irradiation-testing capability that has supported the existing commercial fleet and the U.S. Naval Reactors program. It is this kind of testing that enabled the Navy to have superior operating performance and lifelong cores, and it is the kind of testing that has supported the commercial nuclear industry in improving their availability from a fleetwide performance in the 60% range in the early 1980s to over 90% today. It is through such testing that investors will have the confidence that their designs will be economical and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have the confidence that those designs are safe to operate. 

    Why would/should the government invest in research infrastructure?

    The federal government has long invested in large-scale scientific research infrastructure that universities could not afford to support innovation and technology development and help ensure U.S. leadership in science and engineering.  

    Is this being built for industry? If so, shouldn’t they pay for it?

    VTR will operate as a scientific user facility and will support research and development for private industry, national labs, universities and international entities. Just as with other DOE scientific user facilities, VTR will be accessed through contracts, grants and other methods that help offset costs.  

    In addition, VTR is exploring cost-share arrangements through the development of public-private partnerships with industry and other partners. The U.S. government, through national labs and agencies, has long provided research infrastructure and tools needed to advance technologies and innovation across the public and private sectors. 

    Why is U.S. leadership in nuclear energy important?

    The United States has long been a leader in not only the research and development of nuclear energy technologies but also in the licensing, safety procedures, operations and security of nuclear power plants. Because of that, many other countries have based their nuclear operations and regulations on what we do in the United States. This has led to safer, more efficient operations of commercial nuclear power reactors around the world. Also, when other countries import and deploy U.S. nuclear energy technologies, a long-term strategic partnership is established with those countries for many decades to come.

    Using new world-class scientific facilities such as VTR will enable the United States to lead the development and deployment of advanced reactor technologies.

    Has the need for VTR been studied?

    Yes, DOE’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee (NEAC) 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. 

    What kind of fuel will the VTR use? Is it dangerous?

    Several options of a metallic-alloy fuel, including Uranium, Plutonium and Zirconium, are being considered. Using this type of metal fuel provides numerous safety benefits. VTR is designed in an inherently safe manner. If the core starts to overheat, the encased fuel’s shielding will swell, slowing down and eventually squelching the fission reaction and causing the reactor to shut down naturally, according to the laws of physics.

    Where will VTR get the material for its fuel?

    DOE is working with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to identify appropriate sources of material that meet the reactor’s fuel requirements and that would not negatively impact critical NNSA missions if the material were repurposed. 

    Will VTR create waste?

    The proposed activities at VTR would produce small amounts of waste, which are similar to other waste streams that are regularly and proactively managed at DOE sites.  

    Can VTR be safely and quickly shut down?

    Yes, the VTR is a sodium fast-reactor design that will use metallic fuel, which sits in a bath of a liquid metal (sodium) at atmospheric pressure. The design introduces safety features such as gravity and convection that allow passive cooling of the reactor after shutdown

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

    No, VTR is a test reactor designed for experimentation. The proposed design does use sodium because it is the most mature fast-reactor technology, 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.

    Will university or industry researchers have access to VTR?

    Yes, VTR will operate as a scientific user facility where researchers from national laboraties, universities, industry and other organizations will have access to its capabilities.

    What is a user facility?

    A user facility is a federally sponsored research facility available for external use to advance scientific or technical knowledge under the following conditions:

      • The facility is open to all interested potential users without regard to nationality or institutional affiliation.
      • Allocation of facility resources is determined by merit review of the proposed work.
      • User fees are not charged for non-proprietary work if the user intends to publish the research results in the open literature.  Full cost recovery is required for proprietary work.
      • The facility provides resources sufficient for users to conduct work safely and efficiently.
      • The facility supports a formal user organization to represent the users and facilitate sharing of information, forming collaborations, and organizing research efforts among users.
      • The facility capability does not compete with an available private sector capability.

    Some advanced reactor designs are nearing the demonstration stage. Do we still need VTR? Will it even be useful for later-stage or existing technologies?

    Yes. VTR is designed to be as versatile as possible and to support a range of technologies, including light-water reactors that are in operation today. VTR produces more neutrons at higher speeds than existing test reactors and can perform experiments and tests not possible with the test reactors in the U.S. today. In addition, test reactors support experiments and research for all stages of technology development, not just those in early stages. Ongoing research using test reactors has led to improved materials and fuels for the nation’s nuclear power plants, many of which have operated for decades. 

    When will VTR will be operational?

    If final design and construction begin in 2023, VTR will be fully operational by the end of 2026, pending funding appropriations by Congress. 

    How will VTR be authorized or licensed?

    Since VTR will be used for research and not to generate electricity, it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). VTR will be overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy, which has the legal authority to develop and operate reactors as authorized by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. DOE, just like the NRC, places great importance on protecting the public, workers and the environment. The two federal agencies are working closely as NRC prepares to license new commercial reactors in the future.  

    Where will VTR be located?

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed building the VTR complex at one of its national laboratory sites and has contracted with a company to evaluate locations at Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  

    Will VTR require a lot of water?

    VTR’s design does not use water for cooling, so its water usage will be limited to drinking water and plumbing—similar to that of a typical office building.

    When will VTR be built?

    If final design and construction begin in 2023, VTR will be fully operational by the end of 2026, pending funding appropriations by Congress.

    How will VTR contribute to carbon reduction?

    VTR will enable research, development and demonstration of  innovative  nuclear  energy technologies (with a focus on fuels, materials and sensors in representative environments) that can supply the world with  abundant carbon-free energy. 

    Will VTR release any emissions during operations?

    No. VTR will not release any air pollutants that are subject to regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (known as “criterion air pollutants”). In fact, by enabling advanced carbon-free nuclear energy technologies, VTR will contribute to expansion of non-emitting nuclear energy.

    How will VTR support the next generation of nuclear workers?

    The vast majority of the nuclear workforce – spanning nuclear engineers, designers, developers, technicians, construction works and skilled labor — have never worked on a nuclear reactor project from inception to operations. The invaluable hands-on experience that building the VTR will provide to the nuclear workforce will ensure that a prepared and knowledgeable workforce is available for constructing and operating other advanced nuclear reactor technology facilities.

    FAQs

    What is VTR?

    The Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) is a one-of-a-kind scientific user facility capable of performing  large-scale,  fast-spectrum neutron-irradiation tests and experiments simply not possible today. It will support research, development and demonstration of  innovative  nuclear  energy technologies (with a focus on fuels, materials and sensors in representative environments) that can supply the world with  abundant carbon-free  energy.  With the addition of  VTR, the U.S. will  again  lead the world in nuclear energy research, safety and security while also supporting  U.S.  industry partners as they commercialize new technologies.

    What is a test reactor? What will VTR do?

    Test reactors are scientific research tools. They provide intense neutron fluxes that are used to simulate prototypical conditions or conduct accelerated neutron damage irradiation studies. Real-time measurements and subsequent post-irradiation examination techniques provide valuable information on how fuels, materials, components and instrumentation withstand the extreme conditions inside nuclear power plants and even future fusion reactors. This enables scientists and engineers to design safer, longer-lasting and more efficient fuels, materials and components for nuclear energy systems. 

    Why do we need VTR? Why not use existing test reactors?

    Existing test reactors, like the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory and the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are thermal neutron reactors and are not capable of sustaining neutrons at concentrations and speeds high enough to perform accelerated testing of innovative nuclear technologies under development.

    Is there anywhere else this research can be done?

    Not in the U.S. The only viable location for testing fast-spectrum irradiation currently accessible to U.S. companies is the BOR-60 reactor in the Russian Federation. U.S. researchers and developers encounter significant barriers when seeking access to Russian Federation reactors, including export control concerns for materials and fuels testing, intellectual property rights, quality assurance and transportation issues.  

    What research or technologies will VTR support?

    With four cartridge test loops, a rapid-shuttle test loop also known as a “rabbit,” multiple positions for standard tests and possible insertion of dismountable test elements in any of the fuel positions in the reactor core, VTR will be able to run several types of tests simultaneously, including experiments for:

    ·         Molten salt reactors

    ·         Sodium-cooled fast reactors

    ·         Lead-cooled fast reactors

    ·         Gas-cooled fast reactors

    ·         Structural materials testing for any reactor technology, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) existing fleet of reactors

    ·         Instrumentation, sensors and controls

      Why invest in new nuclear energy technologies when nuclear power plants are closing in the U.S.?

      Nuclear power plants in the U.S. are closing largely because operators are struggling to compete with the influx of cheap natural gas; however, investment in nuclear energy around the globe is rising. Countries such as India and China are building nuclear reactors to bring clean, reliable and abundant electricity to areas without it. Other countries are investing in nuclear technologies to not only provide electricity and clean water, but also to provide a clean source of high-temperature process heat needed for industrial applications. To participate in this lucrative export market, U.S. companies are developing innovative and right-sized advanced nuclear reactor systems that can help supply the world with clean, carbon-free power.

      I’ve read that some new reactor designs are nearing the demonstration stage. If that is the case, why do we need a new test reactor?

      Some of the new reactor designs nearing the demonstration stage can now be built because they are based on proven light-water reactor technologies or technologies developed using the existing test reactors for thermal spectrum designs. Additionally, other advanced reactor concepts have been operated as prototypes. In the long run, many of the advanced reactor technologies will benefit from the kinds of innovative fuels, materials, instruments and sensors that can only be developed through the use of fast-spectrum-irradiation capabilities provided by VTR for continuous innovation and improvements.  

      For example, VTR will provide a parallel role that the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory has played for the past 50 years for light-water reactors by providing an irradiation-testing capability that has supported the existing commercial fleet and the U.S. Naval Reactors program. It is this kind of testing that enabled the Navy to have superior operating performance and lifelong cores, and it is the kind of testing that has supported the commercial nuclear industry in improving their availability from a fleetwide performance in the 60% range in the early 1980s to over 90% today. It is through such testing that investors will have the confidence that their designs will be economical and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will have the confidence that those designs are safe to operate. 

      Why would/should the government invest in research infrastructure?

      The federal government has long invested in large-scale scientific research infrastructure that universities could not afford to support innovation and technology development and help ensure U.S. leadership in science and engineering.  

      Is this being built for industry? If so, shouldn’t they pay for it?

      VTR will operate as a scientific user facility and will support research and development for private industry, national labs, universities and international entities. Just as with other DOE scientific user facilities, VTR will be accessed through contracts, grants and other methods that help offset costs.  

      In addition, VTR is exploring cost-share arrangements through the development of public-private partnerships with industry and other partners. The U.S. government, through national labs and agencies, has long provided research infrastructure and tools needed to advance technologies and innovation across the public and private sectors. 

      Why is U.S. leadership in nuclear energy important?

      The United States has long been a leader in not only the research and development of nuclear energy technologies but also in the licensing, safety procedures, operations and security of nuclear power plants. Because of that, many other countries have based their nuclear operations and regulations on what we do in the United States. This has led to safer, more efficient operations of commercial nuclear power reactors around the world. Also, when other countries import and deploy U.S. nuclear energy technologies, a long-term strategic partnership is established with those countries for many decades to come.

      Using new world-class scientific facilities such as VTR will enable the United States to lead the development and deployment of advanced reactor technologies.

      Has the need for VTR been studied?

      Yes, DOE’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee (NEAC) 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. 

      What kind of fuel will the VTR use? Is it dangerous?

      Several options of a metallic-alloy fuel, including Uranium, Plutonium and Zirconium, are being considered. Using this type of metal fuel provides numerous safety benefits. VTR is designed in an inherently safe manner. If the core starts to overheat, the encased fuel’s shielding will swell, slowing down and eventually squelching the fission reaction and causing the reactor to shut down naturally, according to the laws of physics.

      Where will VTR get the material for its fuel?

      Several options of a metallic-alloy fuel, including Uranium, Plutonium and Zirconium, are being considered. Using this type of metal fuel provides numerous safety benefits. VTR is designed in a manner that if the core starts to overheat, the encased fuel’s shielding will swell, slowing down and eventually squelching the fission reaction and causing the reactor to shut down. 

      Will VTR create waste?

      The proposed activities at VTR would produce small amounts of waste, which are similar to other waste streams that are regularly and proactively managed at DOE sites.  

      Can VTR be safely and quickly shut down?

      Yes, the VTR is a sodium fast-reactor design that will use metallic fuel, which sits in a bath of a liquid metal (sodium) at atmospheric pressure. The design introduces safety features such as gravity and convection that allow passive cooling of the reactor after shutdown.

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

      No, VTR is a test reactor designed for experimentation. The proposed design does use sodium because it is the most mature fast-reactor technology, 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.

      Will university or industry researchers have access to VTR?

      Yes, VTR will operate as a scientific user facility where researchers from national laboraties, universities, industry and other organizations will have access to its capabilities.

      What is a user facility?

      Nuclear power plants in the U.S. are closing largely because operators are struggling to compete with the influx of cheap natural gas; however, investment in nuclear energy around the globe is rising. Countries such as India and China are building nuclear reactors to bring clean, reliable and abundant electricity to areas without it. Other countries are investing in nuclear technologies to not only provide electricity and clean water, but also to provide a clean source of high-temperature process heat needed for industrial applications. To participate in this lucrative export market, U.S. companies are developing innovative and right-sized advanced nuclear reactor systems that can help supply the world with clean, carbon-free power.

      Some advanced reactor designs are nearing the demonstration stage. Do we still need VTR? Will it even be useful for later-stage or existing technologies?

      Yes. VTR is designed to be as versatile as possible and to support a range of technologies, including light-water reactors that are in operation today. VTR produces more neutrons at higher speeds than existing test reactors and can perform experiments and tests not possible with the test reactors in the U.S. today. In addition, test reactors support experiments and research for all stages of technology development, not just those in early stages. Ongoing research using test reactors has led to improved materials and fuels for the nation’s nuclear power plants, many of which have operated for decades. 

      When will VTR will be operational?

      If final design and construction begin in 2023, VTR will be fully operational by the end of 2026, pending funding appropriations by Congress. 

      How will VTR be authorized or licensed?

      Since VTR will be used for research and not to generate electricity, it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). VTR will be overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy, which has the legal authority to develop and operate reactors as authorized by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974. DOE, just like the NRC, places great importance on protecting the public, workers and the environment. The two federal agencies are working closely as NRC prepares to license new commercial reactors in the future.  

      Where will VTR be located?

      The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed building the VTR complex at one of its national laboratory sites and has contracted with a company to evaluate locations at Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  

      Will VTR require a lot of water?

      VTR’s design does not use water for cooling, so its water usage will be limited to drinking water and plumbing—similar to that of a typical office building.

      How will VTR contribute to carbon reduction?

      VTR will enable research, development and demonstration of innovative nuclear energy technologies (with a focus on fuels, materials and sensors in representative environments) that can supply the world with abundant carbon-free energy. 

      Will VTR release any emissions during operations?

      No. VTR will not release any air pollutants that are subject to regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (known as “criterion air pollutants”). In fact, by enabling advanced carbon-free nuclear energy technologies, VTR will contribute to expansion of non-emitting nuclear energy.

      How will VTR support the next generation of nuclear workers?

      The vast majority of the nuclear workforce — spanning nuclear engineers, designers, developers, technicians, construction workers and skilled labor — have never worked on a nuclear reactor project from inception to operation. The invaluable hands-on experience of building VTR will ensure that a prepared and knowledgeable workforce is available for constructing and operating other advanced nuclear reactor technology facilities.

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      Contact:

      Laura.Scheele@inl.gov

               
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