Viewpoint: Demonstration AND test reactors: both are necessary for innovation

03 September 2021

Both demonstration and test reactors are necessary to support the development and commercial deployment of the new reactor technologies that will expand access to reliable, clean energy, writes Kathryn Huff, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the US Department of Energy. This article was first published by the Office of Nuclear Energy on 30 July.

Kathryn Huff (Image: DOE)

"The impacts of climate change are playing out in real-time all over the world, including in the United States. Oppressive heat domes have blanketed most of the country, severe flooding and storms continue to grow in intensity, and forest fires on the West Cost are ripping through acres of dry land with smoke that can been seen all the way on the East Coast.

We simply can't wait any longer and Secretary Granholm has made it crystal clear that we need to deploy all existing and new technologies NOW in order to temper these impacts - that must include innovations in nuclear energy.

The United States is fortunate to have some of the best nuclear innovators on the planet developing new reactor technologies that will expand access to reliable, clean energy all over the world.

Many of these US vendors are planning to demonstrate their reactors within the decade, but in order to innovate faster and improve upon these designs over time, we also need the necessary infrastructure to support their development and, more importantly, their commercial deployment.

This unique challenge is both a sprint and marathon at the same time, which is why we need reactor demonstrations AND a new test reactor to facilitate the future growth of these technologies.

The purpose of a demonstration is to prove that a technology works as intended. New innovations stem from these successful demos to improve the future generations of that product. Think of the latest version of your cell phone or the clever features in next year's new cars.

This same innovation cycle happens in nuclear energy.

Many of the advanced reactors in the demonstration pipeline right now are incorporating innovative fuels, materials, and technologies into modern concepts that build upon more than 50 reactor demonstrations at our national laboratories.

And, while these reactors will soon be ready to demonstrate their enhanced features over today's reactors, they will also continue to evolve and improve over time, which is why it's essential for our nation to expand our R&D infrastructure accordingly.

Since the 1960s, nuclear innovation has been fuelled by world-class nuclear R&D infrastructure at our labs and universities, including many campus Test, Research, and Training Reactors and the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) at Idaho National Laboratory. ATR is the world's premier thermal neutron test reactor and enables nuclear fuel and materials testing for our military, federal, university, and industry partners.

While ATR and other US Department of Energy (DOE) test reactors will continue to provide this important capability, these thermal neutron reactors are not capable of sustaining neutrons at concentrations and speeds high enough to perform accelerated testing of innovative nuclear technologies. Faster testing will allow scientists to test multiple ideas quickly, identify what works, and make refinements that yield innovations to support the safer and more economical operation of nuclear power plants.

As we move from demonstrations to widespread commercialisation, we need a fast neutron test reactor that can support research for all stages of technology development - including the existing fleet of commercial reactors.

With the bipartisan support of Congress, DOE is designing the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) to provide an advanced fission environment - specifically, a high flux, fast neutron environment - to support accelerated fuels and materials experiments over the next 60 years.

VTR will be the tool that, in harmony with demonstration reactors, will help us discover, test and advance the innovative nuclear energy technologies that we need to help our planet achieve zero carbon emissions.

VTR presents a unique opportunity for our nation to modernise the nuclear research infrastructure that will crucially support new technologies that could re-energise the US nuclear industry around the world.

Bringing a fast neutron test source back to the United States, not only invests in our nuclear innovators but sets us up for success in a future clean energy market that is estimated to be worth billions.

Advanced nuclear can help grow our economy, reduce emissions, and create new jobs for our American workers. Without VTR, US innovation will fall behind other countries which have fast neutron test reactors, and we simply can't let that happen."

The original version of this article can be read here.

Kathryn Huff will be speaking in a high-level session on the future of nuclear energy at the World Nuclear Association Symposium 2021, to be held 8-10 September.