US DOE issues draft Environmental Impact Statement for new test reactor

22 December 2020

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has released the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for construction of the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), a sodium-cooled reactor that will provide a source of fast neutrons needed to test advanced reactor technology, fuels and related materials. The draft EIS will be open for a 45-day public comment period.

The VTR is to be based on GEH's PRISM reactor (Image: INL)

The draft EIS evaluates alternatives for a VTR and associated facilities for the irradiation and post-irradiation examination of test and experimental fuels and materials. It also addresses options for fuel production and evaluates the management of used nuclear fuel from the VTR.

The statement evaluates: the construction and operation of the VTR at the two candidate sites of Idaho National Laboratory (INL) or Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee; production of fuel for the reactor at INL and/or the Savannah River site in South Carolina; and a no-action alternative under which DOE would not pursue the construction and operation of a VTR. The INL site is identified as DOE's "preferred alternative" for construction and operation of the proposed reactor.

The VTR will be based on GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's (GEH) PRISM pool-type small modular reactor design. DOE considered some 18 reactor and non-reactor concepts, in addition to existing facilities, to meet the mission need for a versatile, fast-neutron spectrum testing capability.

As well as the PRISM reactor, three existing facilities and two new fast test reactors - the molten-salt cooled fast test reactor (MSFTR) and a lead/lead-bismuth-cooled fast test reactor (LFTR) - passed the initial screening criteria. The existing facilities were deemed less suitable due to factors including modifications that would be required and impacts on their current operations. The MSFTR and LFTR s were dismissed from further evaluation in the EIS because of the technical and schedule risk associated with their current levels of technical maturity.

"DOE is committed to designing and operating the VTR in a way that protects the environment and nearby communities," Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal said. "The VTR will help ensure that DOE and our industry partners can develop innovative nuclear technologies to supply the United States, and the world, with abundant carbon-free energy."

The public comment period will conclude 45 days after the US Environmental Protection Agency publishes its Notice of Availability in the Federal Register, which DOE said it expected to happen on 31 December.

The programme to provide a reactor-based source of the fast neutrons was authorised under the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2018 and launched in March 2019. DOE approved Critical Decision 1 for the VTR - the second step in DOE's process to review and manage research infrastructure projects - in September. It will make a final decision on the VTR after the completion of the EIS and Record of Decision, which is expected in late 2021.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News