VCR will play key role in nuclear energy innovation ecosystem

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Schematic of the multipurpose test reactor. (Idaho National Laboratory, public domain)

The next generation of civilian nuclear technologies promises to bring zero carbon energy to a growing international market. However, for the US nuclear industry to take the lead in manufacturing advanced nuclear technologies, the US government must support a broad ecosystem of nuclear innovation, which rests on three pillars: demonstration and commercialization of new reactor designs; the financing of low enriched uranium fuel (HALEU), which will power most advanced reactors; and the construction of the Multipurpose Test Reactor (VTR). While the VCR has a crucial role to play in our ability to test the fuels and materials that will be used in the next generation of reactors, its funding was recently canceled by House and Senate officials. This exclusion is a serious mistake which will have far-reaching ramifications for the American leadership in the field of nuclear energy. However, there are legislative opportunities ahead to rectify this mistake.

The VCR will allow researchers, in the United States or in allied countries with nuclear research programs, to simulate the conditions of different types of commercial reactors. It will speed up radiation impact tests on fuels and materials; one year of testing reactor materials in the VCR will show the equivalent amount of radiation damage as ten years in a commercial reactor. The VTR will also be able to test accident-tolerant fuels, which can help modernize the existing nuclear reactor fleet by making it more immune to accidents and lowering the cost of electricity. Existing reactors (and their fuel types) are worth the investment, as they currently supply the United States with 20% of its total electricity production and more than half of its carbon-free electricity.

The advanced reactor designs scheduled for demonstration over the next few years and the advanced fuel that will power these designs require a test facility so they can continue to innovate. At present, Russia is the only country with a test reactor with comparable capacities. However, geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia have made it increasingly difficult for American companies to test their nuclear fuel and materials in Russia. Russia’s test reactor gives its state-owned nuclear companies an edge over the US nuclear industry. If the United States is to compete effectively with Russian nuclear technologies in the years to come, then the United States needs its own test facility.

Nationally, the VCR would also benefit the US economy by enabling the continued development of new nuclear power plant projects. The nuclear construction projects will employ American workers, create unionized jobs and restore the national nuclear supply chain, a necessity for the rapid deployment of advanced reactors for climate change mitigation.

While some critics have argued that Congress should no longer fund the program due to its cost, the estimated price (between $ 3 billion and $ 6 billion over several years) is paltry relative to the DOE’s annual budget. In the current fiscal year alone, lawmakers have allocated more than $ 39 billion to the DOE. Expert predictions about the annual cost of climate change and the failure to decarbonize the world still eclipse the estimated cost of the VCR. In addition, there are opportunities to cover the costs of the VCR, including through international cooperation and funding from civilian nuclear allies who wish to test their own nuclear fuel and materials. Although some advanced American nuclear reactors can be demonstrated before the VCR is finished, the VCR will allow almost any nuclear power technology to innovate in the future.

The Congress still has the possibility of supporting the VTR, in particular through the process of reconciliation and, for the future, through the expenses of the fiscal year 2022. In the framework of the reconciliation, the House committee on the science, space and technology came up with $ 95 million for the VCR. The VCR must be recognized as a crucial tool for the large-scale deployment of advanced nuclear energy technologies, and it must be supported by climate and innovation advocates.

Each of the three conditions required for US nuclear innovation – demonstration of new reactors, support for new fuels, and national testing capability – plays a different role in the nuclear ecosystem. All three support the development of the next generation of nuclear energy technologies. The VTR will ensure that advanced nuclear technologies can continue to adapt to a changing world and meet the growing global demand for clean electricity. Without the VCR, the next generation of nuclear power technology in the United States could be the last.

Suzanne Baker is the co-founder of Good Energy Collective.

Jennifer T. Gordon is Editor-in-Chief and Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

Judi Greenwald is the Executive Director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

Jackie Toth is the Senior Director of Advocacy for Good Energy Collective.

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