US university plans to build microreactor

29 June 2021

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has informed the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that it intends to construct an Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) Micro Modular Reactor on its campus. The university said the submission of the Letter of Intent is the first step in the NRC's two-step process to license the new research and test reactor facility.

The Micro Modular Reactor design (Image: USNC)

UIUC's Grainger College of Engineering (and its Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering), in collaboration with USNC, is spearheading the new reactor deployment. In a joint statement, UIUC and USNC said the project team has spent the past two years engaging with the university and surrounding community; local, state and federal governments; and potential industry partners.

"The docketing of these efforts with the NRC will help the team continue to provide transparency of the project status," they added.

The new research and test reactor facility will offer UIUC staff and students a diverse set of opportunities for research: instrumentation and control, multi-physics validation, reactor prototype testing, micro-grid operations, cybersecurity, hydrogen production for transportation and energy storage, and other energy intensive, high-value products.

The university plans to re-power partially its coal-fired Abbott power station with the USNC Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) Energy System, providing a zero-carbon demonstration of district heat and power to campus buildings as part of its green campus initiative. The project team aims to demonstrate how microreactor systems integrate with existing fossil fuel infrastructure to accelerate the decarbonisation of existing power-generation facilities.

In addition to supporting the UIUC's clean energy goals, the microreactor will serve as a valuable workforce training tool for a new generation of nuclear scientists, engineers and operators.

"Nuclear energy and microreactor technology are poised to play an important role in building a cleaner and more sustainable future," said Rashid Bashir, dean of Grainger College of Engineering. "This proposed reactor continues our proud tradition of leading academia in the pursuit of safe, transformative nuclear technologies, and enables us to innovatively train and develop the next generation workforce to lead the nation’s new economy."

USNC's MMR is a 15 MW thermal, 5 MW electrical high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, drawing on operational experience from reactors developed by China, Germany, Japan and the USA. It consists of two plants: the nuclear plant that generates heat, and the adjacent power plant that converts heat into electricity or provides process heat for industrial applications. The USNC system is designed to be simple, with minimal operation and maintenance requirements, and no on-site fuel storage, handling or processing. The MMR uses TRISO fuel in prismatic graphite blocks and has a sealed transportable core.

In October 2020, USNC proposed deploying its MMR at sites in Idaho and Illinois by 2026 through partnerships with Idaho National Laboratory and UIUC. The proposals were part of the US Department of Energy's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which aims to accelerate the demonstration of advanced reactors through cost-shared partnerships with US industry. The programme, which was launched in May last year, will provide USD160 million for initial funding to build two demonstration advanced reactors that can be operational within the next five to seven years.

"The University of Illinois provides a unique environment for innovation in research and education combined with the opportunity of commercial-level implementation on a scale that is ideal to our micro reactor product," said USNC CEO Francesco Venneri. "We expect the licensing process to be exceptionally comprehensive and open to public review and comment, exactly as it should be."

"This impressive project takes advantage of the diversity of expertise and spirit of innovation across all relevant areas of science and technology at the University of Illinois," said Susan Martinis, vice chancellor for research and innovation at UIUC. "We know that Illinois ingenuity will play an important role in advancing the technology that makes microreactors safe, versatile, and cost effective."

The MMR is at an advanced licensing stage at the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited's Chalk River Laboratories campus in Ontario. The project is a collaboration between USNC and Ontario Power Generation through the jointly owned Global First Power Limited Partnership (GFP). Last month, GFP's application for a licence to prepare a site for an MMR at Chalk River moved to the technical review phase of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's licensing process. GFP plans to build and operate an MMR unit by 2026.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News