Final environmental impact statement for US Versatile Test Reactor

16 May 2022

Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has been identified as the preferred site for the construction and operation of the sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) released by the US Department of Energy (DOE).

How the VTR could look (Image: INL)

The Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) will be used to provide a source of fast neutrons for testing and evaluating nuclear fuels, materials, sensors, and instrumentation to support the development of advanced reactor technologies. Such facilities are currently available in only a few locations worldwide, and the USA has not operated one in more than 20 years.

"VTR will provide US researchers from industry, academia, and our national laboratories with a critical tool for developing transformational technologies that will expand nuclear energy's contribution to abundant, carbon-free energy," Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff said. "VTR's contribution to the fight against climate change begins with our commitment to designing, constructing, and operating the VTR in a way that protects the environment and nearby communities."

The US Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, which became law in September 2018, directed the DOE to develop a reactor-based fast neutron source for the testing of advanced reactor fuels and materials, and to execute a programme for enhancing the capability to develop new reactor technologies through high-performance computer modelling and simulation techniques. The VTR project was launched in 2019 by then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry. A draft EIS was released in December 2020, which was opened to public comments in the first months of 2021.

The VTR will be a 300 MW (thermal) pool-type, sodium-cooled reactor using a uranium-plutonium-zirconium metal fuel based on GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's PRISM small modular reactor design.

The FEIS analyses and evaluates the potential impacts of the alternative options of INL and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), including constructing and operating the reactor, post-irradiation examination experimental of specimens in hot cell facilities, and the conditioning and storage of used fuel pending its shipment for interim storage or permanent disposal. It also evaluates production of fuel for the reactor at INL and/or DOE's Savannah River site, and a so-called no-action alternative of not going ahead with the construction and operation of the VTR.

DOE's preferred alternative is to build and operate the VTR at INL, where existing facilities within the adjacent Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC) would be modified and used for post-irradiation examination of test assemblies and treatment of used nuclear fuel. Treated used fuel would be temporarily stored at a new VTR spent fuel pad at MFC. The FEIS finds that, although both the INL and ORNL options would generally have small environmental consequences, overall these would be smaller at the INL site.

DOE has not yet identified a preferred option for the location of fuel production services for the VTR, but could choose to use either INL, Savannah River, or a combination of both sites to for feedstock preparation and fuel fabrication. Existing facilities would be modified or adapted to provide the necessary capabilities at both locations. Implementing fuel production at either INL and Savannah River would generally have small environmental consequences, the FEIS says. The source of the plutonium - US weapon-grade plutonium, foreign reactor-grade plutonium, or some other material - to be used is an issue that must be resolved, it says, as the processes to be deployed will depend on the characteristics of the plutonium feedstock selected.

Issuance of the VTR FEIS means that DOE can now proceed with making a final decision on the project. It expects to issue a formal Record of Decision later this year.

The FEIS can be downloaded here.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News