How NRIC Is Helping Advance Technology for the Nuclear Power Industry

The National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) is a national Department of Energy (DOE) program led by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) that allows collaborators to harness the world-class capabilities of the U.S. National Laboratory System. NRIC supports the construction and demonstration of advanced reactor systems through a suite of services and capabilities.

“Our vision is to support the demonstration of at least two advanced reactors by the end of 2025, in order to reestablish U.S. nuclear energy leadership, and to be supporting commercial advanced nuclear by 2030, so that we can be providing abundant clean energy to the world,” Dr. Ashley Finan, director of NRIC, told attendees during a presentation at the American Nuclear Society’s Winter Meeting and Technology Expo on Nov. 14 in Phoenix, Arizona.

“We really work to leverage the national lab expertise and infrastructure and capabilities across the country—so not just at Idaho National Laboratory, but with many different national laboratories—and to help manage demonstrations to success,” she said.

“We’re working to achieve that vision through our mission to inspire stakeholders and the public to empower innovators to test and demonstrate their technologies by enabling access to materials expertise and capabilities at the national laboratories, and to deliver successful outcomes through efficient coordination of partners and resources,” said Finan.

NRIC has been preparing a couple of sites for demonstration reactors. Specifically, it’s repurposing the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) Dome to provide the containment for advanced microreactor demonstrations. EBR-II was a sodium-cooled reactor that operated at INL from 1964 to 1994. It had a thermal power rating of 62.5 MW, an intermediate closed loop of secondary sodium, and a steam plant that produced 19 MW of electrical power through a conventional turbine generator. The repurposed facility, known as the DOME Test Bed, which stands for “Demonstration of Microreactor Experiments,” will host microreactors with thermal power ratings of up to 20 MW.

“Right now, it’s being established to be able to host high-temperature gas reactors, using high-assay low-enriched uranium,” said Finan. “We have about five or so, really more than five companies, that are interested in using this that we’re working with now.” The first user is expected in 2024.

NRIC also has several Experimental Test Bed projects underway. Among them are the Helium Component Test Facility, In-HotCell Thermal Creep Frame, Mechanisms Engineering Test Lab (METL), Molten Salt Thermophysical Examination Capabilities (MSTEC), and Virtual Test Bed.

“[The Helium Component Test Facility] is an exciting project that was built on investments made by the microreactor program. In the MAGNET [Microreactor AGile Non-nuclear Experimental Testbed] facility, … we added on a helium component testing capability,” Finan explained. “That was completed earlier this year and we completed our first round of tests in October.”

The In-HotCell Thermal Creep Frame addresses a capability that was found missing through a gap analysis conducted by NRIC. As a result, engineers recommended adding the capability to hot cells so testing could be conducted on irradiated graphite materials.

“The Mechanisms Engineering Test Lab is an operating facility at Argonne National Laboratory, and NRIC is funding the operations of that facility to enable testing the components in liquid metal, right now, in liquid sodium,” said Finan.

Another missing capability is being resolved through the MSTEC project. “That’s a modular hot cell that will enable us to measure the thermophysical properties of irradiated molten salt fuels,” Finan said. NRIC expects to establish that capability in 2024.

The Virtual Test Bed is a partnership between NRIC and the NEAMS (Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation) program. “That takes a lot of the really important codes that were developed in the laboratories over the last several years, and brings them one step closer to what the industry needs, so really applies them to demonstration examples so that industry can use those codes that were developed in the labs,” Finan explained.

The NRIC Resource Team offers a way for nuclear innovators to access valuable national lab expertise. Although it’s limited to only 200 hours of national lab expert time per demonstration per year, it provides a quick and easy way to get help. “We can turn these around in a week or two, depending on the details of the project,” Finan said. “That allows innovators to work with a lab—to work with the experts—at a level that goes way beyond the initial hour phone call, and lets them dig into something with enough content that they get some value out of it, but that they don’t have to wait six to 12 months for an agreement that involves creating intellectual property.”

Examples of help the NRIC Resource Team has provided includes collaborating on test plans, interpreting code requirements, and helping demonstrate the pressure drop in a heat exchanger, among other things. “The feedback on this program has been really positive, so we’re hoping to expand this in the future as resources permit,” said Finan.

NRIC worked with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of Michigan to develop the Siting Tool for Advanced Nuclear Development (STAND). It provides a systematic way, based on user siting preferences and priorities, to discover areas that may be a good fit, explore areas to identify specific sites, and compare sites to identify an optimal option. Finan said it is “a fantastic tool.”

One of the things Finan said keeps her up at night is worrying that successful demonstrations might not scale up. “We need to make sure that as we demonstrate nuclear technologies, we’re also doing the work that will support scalability and deployment,” she said. “So, on that, we have a couple of activities in addressing costs and markets, including advanced construction technologies to reduce costs.”

The list of activities NRIC is involved in is extensive. In addition to all the previously mentioned items, it’s also focused on digital engineering initiatives; development of commercial maritime surface vessel nuclear propulsion; outreach to communities; collaboration with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on a number of licensing activities; transportation planning for advanced reactors, microreactors, and advanced reactor fuel; developing environmental justice and equity frameworks for future facilities; and more.

Still, NRIC’s main goal remains demonstrating at least two advanced nuclear reactors. Finan said NRIC would work “to maintain progress to support demonstrations by the end of 2025, and sustained innovation thereafter.”

A timeline of advanced reactor projects that could deploy this decade. Source: NRIC/INL

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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