GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and TerraPower are jointly pursuing an opportunity to design and build the U.S. Department of Energy’s Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), an experimental fast neutron nuclear reactor that could start up by 2026.

The companies on Jan. 21 announced they collaborated on a response to an expression of interest (EOI) issued by Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA) in November 2019, to gauge stakeholder interest in forming a cost-sharing partnership arrangement to design and and construct the VTR. BEA, which is the day-to-day contractor for Idaho National Laboratory (INL), where the reactor will be likely sited, said the scope of the partnership could include “development and deployment of the VTR, other uses of VTR capabilities beyond just advanced reactor design and licensing, reducing the cost and schedule risk of new nuclear plant design and construction, and other compatible uses of VTR capabilities.”

GEH and TerraPower will be backed by Energy Northwest, a utility that operates the Columbia nuclear reactor in Washington State and has the option to operate 12 NuScale small modular reactor (SMR) modules that are planned for construction at INL by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS). GEH and TerraPower said “additional companies and investors have expressed interest in being part of this effort and, if brought on board, will be named later.”

Fast Reactor With Vast Potential

The DOE officially launched development of the VTR two years after it conceived the program in February 2017. Documents suggest the agency is working to accelerate the VTR program because it  is considered necessary to keep the U.S. technologically competitive with China and Russia.

As POWER reported in March 2019, fast neutron reactor systems have the potential to extract 60 times more energy from uranium compared to existing thermal reactors, and they contribute to a significant reduction in the burden of radioactive waste. But while wide progress has been made in many countries that are actively developing the reactors and related fuel-cycle technologies, the U.S. has no fast-spectrum irradiation capability to support the advanced reactor research. U.S. researchers have to date depended on access to the Bor-60 reactor in Russia, but they face multiple barriers when seeking access to Russian reactors, “including export control concerns for materials and fuels testing, intellectual property rights, and international transportation issues,” the DOE said.

The DOE has suggested the VTR will foster experiments with much higher neutron energy and flux compared to the nation’s existing 35 research reactors, which would help develop advanced nuclear fuel for future nuclear power plants in the U.S. The VTR will likely be a sodium-cooled pool type reactor that will use fuels with metallic alloys, including high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel. Last year, the DOE estimated the VTR could cost $3 billion to $6 billion, based on similar projects.

But according to BEA, the VTR will likely “perform radiation tests in a controlled environment that could be representative of any number of current or future reactor designs. Just a few months of high intensity neutron bombardment in a test reactor can mimic years in a power reactor core,” it noted.

So far, the VTR has cleared Critical Decision 0, the first in a series of project approvals required by DOE Order 413.3B, which essentially identifies a “mission-related need requiring investment.” The VTR cleared that milestone in February 2019. The DOE in August 2019 then moved to publish a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to analyze alternatives and study the impacts of a VTR.

BEA said last November that after completion of the EIS, the DOE could decide—as early as in 2021—whether to proceed with building the VTR. Congress will then have the task of determining whether to appropriate the necessary funding. If all goes as planned, construction on the VTR could begin as soon as 2022 with operations commencing in 2026.

Work is meanwhile ongoing on a conceptual design and cost estimates for the VTR by a team the DOE selected in November 2018 that comprises GEH and Bechtel. That announcement specifically pointed to a role for GEH’s PRISM technology to support the VTR program. GEH said on Tuesday it has since “been actively engaged in development of the VTR conceptual design. TerraPower has supported the VTR program by making enhancements to the VTR’s design and has invested ten years of sodium technology development into its traveling wave reactor.” According to BEA, GEH/Bechtel’s work is expected to be completed “when the preliminary/final design phase of VTR commences (after Critical Decision 1 is achieved and capital acquisition funding is available starting in [fiscal year] 2021).” The work does not preclude the partners from submitting an EOI, BEA noted.

A Broad Scope

While limited by the currently approved DOE mission need, the scope of the EOI extends beyond testing to include other VTR capabilities, such as for “advanced reactors design and licensing, reducing the cost and schedule risk of new nuclear plant design and construction,” BEA said.

VTR’s testing mission remains unchanged,” it explained. “However, there may be additional areas where VTR design and construction might benefit the advanced nuclear energy industry in achieving its demonstration and commercialization goals at the system, subsystem or component levels. Additional benefits to the private sector may be in the areas of engineering design, licensing and construction processes. It makes sense that we take a broad approach and engage industry in order to identify innovative ideas that will maximize the public and private benefits without impacting the primary mission.”

Still, BEA stressed: “A firm requirement is that the partnership will not delay or increase the cost of the design and construction of the VTR as stated in the Mission Need document.”

It is unclear how many parties responded to the EOI before it closed on Jan. 10. Parties that responded to the EOI will be considered for a future request for proposal (RFP), which will “solicit specific details of the proposed partnership,” BEA noted. “Upon evaluation of the proposals and subsequent contract negotiations, a partnership will be structured under a cost-sharing arrangement using a mutually agreeable contracting mechanism available to DOE.”

While BEA plans to evaluate the responses quickly, for now, it appears an RFP may not be issued until Feb. 14. BEA then plans to provide interested parties up eight weeks to submit proposals. Its objective, it said, is to complete negotiations and commence the public-private partnership by October 2020. The first step it will take on that date is to issue a statement of work for the preliminary and final design phase of the project, it said.

Critical Decision 2 and 3, which will approve the preliminary/final design of the VTR and authorize the start of the construction, are scheduled for fiscal year 2022. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).