DOE Asking for New Nuclear Test Facility

August 7, 2019

On first read, I was triggered by memories of the ill fated Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR) program, that lasted from the 1970s to the 1990s – a proposed “new generation” of reactors that would “breed” plutonium fuel for other reactors.
The prospect of basing the global economy on constant production and transport of ton quantities of bomb-grade nuclear fuel was crazy on it’s face 40 years ago, and certainly not less so now.
On second read, this proposal seems to be for a testing facility to accelerate evaluation of advanced reactor technology, which is not a fundamentally insane idea.

Google not much help here.
Experts – weigh in.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

BOISE, Idaho — A new nuclear test reactor is needed as part of an effort to revamp the nation’s fading nuclear power industry by developing safer fuel and power plants, the U.S. Department of Energy said Monday.
The federal agency said it will prepare an environmental impact statement as part of the process to build the test reactor in Idaho or Tennessee by the end of 2025. Public comments on the environmental review are being taken through Sept. 4.
The Versatile Test Reactor would be the first new test reactor built in the U.S. in decades and give the nation a dedicated “fast-neutron-spectrum” testing capability. Such reactors are called fast reactors.
“This testing capability is essential for the United States to modernize its nuclear energy infrastructure and for developing transformational nuclear energy technologies that reduce waste generation and enhance nuclear security,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry in a statement.
U.S. residents have been wary of nuclear power since the core from Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island underwent a partial meltdown in 1979 in one of the nation’s worst nuclear mishaps. That was followed by a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploding and burning in 1986. In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan where the cores of three reactors suffered meltdowns after cooling systems failed.
Federal officials say the proposed test reactor would help create new and safer fuels, materials and reactors being developed by civilian companies in the U.S.
“If this capability is not available to U.S. innovators as soon as possible, the ongoing shift of nuclear technology dominance to other international states such as China and the Russian Federation will accelerate, to the detriment of the U.S. nuclear industrial sector,” said Rita Baranwal, the Energy Department’s assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy.
The Energy Department had a fast reactor, the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, operating in eastern Idaho until it was shut down in 1994 as the nation turned away from nuclear power.

Edwin Lyman, senior scientist and acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit, said fast reactors such as the proposed Versatile Test Reactor are less safe than current reactors.
Most nuclear reactors in use now are “light-water” reactors fueled by uranium and cooled with water. Mr. Lyman said the test reactor will be cooled with harder-to-control liquid sodium and likely fueled by plutonium, increasing potential nuclear terrorism risks because plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons.
“There is nothing good about these reactors,” he said. “I think there is a love of plutonium in the (Energy) Department that is irrational.”
Revamping the nation’s nuclear power is part of a strategy to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by generating carbon-free electricity with nuclear power initiated under the Obama administration and continuing under the Trump administration, despite Mr. Trump’s downplaying of global warming.
Reducing spent nuclear fuel, federal officials say, is also an objective of the new test reactor. The U.S. has no permanent repository for about 77,000 tons (70,000 metric tons) of radioactive spent fuel, stored mainly at the commercial nuclear power plants where they were used to produce electricity.
But Mr. Lyman said fast reactors would produce waste even more hazardous and difficult to dispose.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, at the end of December, there were 98 nuclear reactors at 59 power plants producing about 20% of the nation’s energy. Most of the reactors are decades old, and many are having a tough time competing economically with other forms of energy production.
The Energy Department is considering building the test reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho or the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee.

If you have not seen my vid on the barriers to widespread “new” nuclear deployment, you should do so now. 4 minutes.

12 Responses to “DOE Asking for New Nuclear Test Facility”

  1. rsmurf Says:

    Lets just make earth nuke free. Its just too damn dangerous to screw with.

  2. Craig Toepfer Says:

    I remember the colossal failure of the DTE Enrico Fermi 1 GE liquid-metal fast breeder reactor in Detroit 10/5/66. A partial meltdown led to the potential destruction of Lake Erie and southeastern Michigan. The highly explosive liquid sodium cooling system was converted briefly to “fuel oil” after the accident and the embarrassment removed in short order to avoid continued bad publicity. The nuclear industry hasn’t sold a reactor since 1976 due to the unwillingness of the financial sector to continue to waste money on a hopelessly and economically doomed technology. Good riddance.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      More anti-nuke hysteria. Read the 1975 book “We Almost Lost Detroit” by John Fuller. A well-balanced explanation that did not live up to the fear in the title—-Fermi I was repaired over 4 years and ran for another 2 years before finally being dismantled in 1972—-hardly “an embarrassment that was removed in short order”.

      Yeah, let’s just keep burning COAL and other fossil fuels instead of even looking at nuclear power—–the safest, cleanest, highest density source of power on the planet, If it wasn’t so expensive and people weren’t such hysterics, there’d be a nuke on every corner.

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        “If it wasn’t so expensive…”
        Um, that’s kind of the problem.

        I can see not using failures of technology 50 years ago as an argument against nuclear power plants, but even modern technology seems pretty pricey and vulnerable to the need for a reliable cool water supply.

        Right now a lot of first-world development of nuclear power seems to fall into the classic problem of private companies getting the profit and public entities paying for failures.

  3. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Expect court cases, mainly by unscientific ideologues and fossil fuel interests, will delay and blowout costs before it is even started. The world is heading for catastrophe, why is this so hard to understand!

  4. neilrieck Says:

    I’ve always been pro-nuke but the economic uncertainties this side of y2k make it too expensive and too impractical (even for safe-nukes like the heavy-water variety). For example, after all the approvals, a nuclear reactor will require 5-7 years of construction time -and- the land under it can never be reused ever again. That is 5-7 years when your capital is not producing a ROI. Meanwhile a wind-farm can be functioning within 3-6 months -and- can be easily dismantled later.

    Speaking about ROI, did anyone here read this:

    • jfon Says:

      ‘.. a nuclear reactor will require 5-7 years of construction time, and- the land under it can never be reused ever again.’ A reactor can run for ninety years, at 90 % capacity factor. After that, another can be built on the same site, and by that time, probably run on the ‘spent’ fuel from its predecessor. A wind farm will last thirty years, at 40% capacity factor on a good site. It will need roughly ten times as much steel and concrete as a light water reactor, for similar power output ( mostly for the tower base.) Future reactor designs will run at low pressure, with no water inside the nuclear island. This will allow them to greatly reduce the size of the containment, with about another ten-fold reduction in construction materials. A predomominately wind and solar grid would need an equivalent or greater build-out of storage – batteries or pumped hydro, either would have huge CO2 footprint to build – and of transmission. ( Germany is well behind in building powerlines to connect its North sea windfarms to the industrial south of the country, due to local resistance – underground lines will cost far more, and take longer. The reactors they’re due to close by 2022 were built near where the demand was.)

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      With Ifon here. Arguments against nukes are generally problems with solutions.
      Operators of tourist tours to Chernobyl are worried that mediation work, on the site, will reduce their business. I kid you not.
      It is said that renewable s can theoretically carry 80% of energy needs. Highly optimistic IMO, but no matter. Nukes fill that gap with other advantages. There is the matter of siting, suitability, of sites for all energy sources vary.
      Finally, even if nukes cost the earth, is not this earth worth the money?

  5. jfon Says:

    ‘The prospect of basing the global economy on constant production and transport of ton quantities of bomb-grade nuclear fuel was crazy on it’s face 40 years ago..’
    You may have read the classic ‘The Curve of Binding Energy’, by John A MacPhee. Much of the book was inspired by Ted Taylor, previously an atom bomb designer, turned proseletyser against plutonium. In an eerily prescient chapter, Taylor conducts MacPhee through the New York Trade Center, explaining what a satchel nuke could do to the building. Ironically, worse was done, much more easily, using fossil fuels. Forty years later, reactor grade plutonium has yet to be made into a bomb. The information needed to do so is available, but the technical difficulty is beyond the resources of a state, let alone rogue actors like Al Qaeda. Plutonium that’s been in a reactor for more than two months has too much of the isotope Pu240, which has a similar relationship to bomb-grade Pu239 as the nitroglycerine ‘sweat’ that forms on dynamite that’s been heated, or like the fulminate of mercury crystals that Ted Taylor, nascent bomb maker, used to make as a boy and then explode by touching them with a feather. Other isotopes that build up in reactor fuel make enough heat to cook the explosive lenses which surround the precisely machined ‘pits’ of a plutonium weapon, and gamma rays that affect the electronic triggers, let alone the technicians trying to assemble it.
    In short, nobody has ever died from a rogue nuclear weapon, and no non-state actor has even started building one. States are subject to the same pressures that have kept nuclear weappons sheathed since 1945, and have stopped most of them from acquiring one. Hundreds of people die every month from improvised diesel and fertiliser bombs. Nobody proposes banning diesel and fertiliser -the economy, and food production, would be impossible without them. Plutonium could provide as much energy to society as diesel does now, using about a millionth of the quantities, and with much easier oversight. You don’t even need sniffer dogs to find it, there are well developed methods using tuned neutrons, developed to monitor the arms control treaties. Sequestering a few kilograms of spent fuel is easy, doing the same for the equivalent hundreds of tons of CO2 has proved almost imossible.

  6. chucksterweb Says:

    I’ve been anti-nuke all my life. There are many reasons for this. I won’t go through them all. The same reasons apply to my being afraid of asteroids. I ain’t shakin in my boots but I am aware of the potential dangers.

    The chance of a catastrophe may be relatively small but the catastrophe itself could be very very large. But it’s not a matter of if but when. I’m aware but not concerned about that. There is nothing I can do about it in the short term anyway. Nuclear chaos is much more of a threat than death by asteroid. That catastrophe could happen as I writ…. well there is nothing I can really do about that either.

    70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste? What the hell do we do with that? That’s just part of the slow building catastrophe that we don’t generally see or pay any attention to. Just like climate change in general. Until it slaps you in the face it’s easy to ignore. You can’t just bury it in a landfill and pretend it was never there. It is here and it’s here to stay.
    This is NOT a competition between fossil fuels and nuclear. The need to eliminate our dependence on fossils has never been clearer, but nukes can’t do it. Nukes won’t do it!
    We have the resources we need to convert human civilization from fossil fuel to clean -renewable energy without nukes. It’s not simple and there are many moving parts but it can be done. There is no one solution. But there are many! That’s a plus!
    There is no Planet B as the young hero Greta has managed to megaphone. God bless her. Gawd save er. She’s just a yung-un an I don’t have all that much time left myself. I pray for the planet and hope like hell that she and her cohorts can save it. I
    might just be the old white haired man in the back row Greta, but I gotch yur back.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Anti-nuke all your life? And you have “reasons”? Did your mother sing you anti-nuke lullabies when you were in the crib? And you would conflate nukes with the “killer asteroid”?—-a death-defying “quantum logic jump” into “what-aboutism” and deflection there.

      The 70,000 metric tons of waste would cover a football feet about 20 feet deep, and CAN be stored indefinitely IF human society lasts, which may not happen because of CAGW. We have already had two of perhaps the worst possible nuke “catastrophes”—-Chernobyl and Fukushima, and they killed in total far fewer people than are killed every day by air pollution and climate change due to burning fossil fuels.

      Why don’t you and the other anti-nuke hysterics concentrate on what REALLY matters—-replacing fossil fuels with RE ASAP. All you achieve with your constant harping against nuclear power is to delay the development of newer types that WILL be needed when the SHTF in the not-too-distant future and no one cares how expensive they are.

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