Wilmington-based GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy has been awarded a subcontract to support the design of a proposed advanced nuclear reactor test facility, currently unavailable in the United States.
GE Hitachi and its PRISM technology have been selected by Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA), the managing and operating contractor for the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory (INL), to support the conceptual design, cost and schedule estimate and safety framework for the agency's Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) program, according to a news release.
GE Hitachi and Bechtel National Inc. will develop the VTR project based on GE Hitachi's PRISM technology, officials said in the release. Bechtel, an engineering, procurement, construction and project management firm, announced its selection Wednesday to participate the VTR program.
"Initially, the scope of work will be focused on engineering. We were selected for this project because of our expertise, so we’ll be relying on the team that is in place, but will add some select technical jobs in the future," said Jon Allen, spokesman for GE Hitachi, in an email.
GE Hitachi is a joint venture between General Electric and Hitachi that provides advanced technology and services for the nuclear industry.
GE Hitachi officials said Tuesday in a news release that PRISM is "the only sodium fast reactor to have successfully completed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission preapplication review process."
"GEH believes that sodium fast reactors are the most mature of advanced reactor technologies, and of these, PRISM is the most advanced with almost four decades of development. We look forward to supporting the VTR program while further advancing the design and maturity of PRISM," Allen said.
The contracted work will investigate what it would take to establish a "reactor-based fast-spectrum neutron irradiation capability" in the country by 2026, according to the BEA.
Allen said a decision will be made in 2020 (when it's expected to have a conceptual design and cost estimate) about whether to proceed with building.
“The VTR is a vital and strategic project for the U.S. and its promising advanced reactor industry, and we applaud the administration and Congress for making this technology a priority,” said Jay Wileman, GE Hitachi president and CEO, said in the release. “Our VTR project team combines GEH’s strength as a nuclear plant vendor, service provider and nuclear fuel fabricator with Bechtel’s strength in nuclear project management, engineering, procurement and construction. The mature PRISM technology is ideally suited to meet the VTR mission needs.”
The concept is based around developing a test facility that would be able to conduct a large number of experiments simultaneously, Bechtel officials said.
The VTR is proposed to "conduct irradiation testing for fuels, materials and equipment to be used in rapidly evolving designs for advanced reactors brought forward by U.S. companies, as well as public and private research institutions," according to a release.
The total subcontract amount is to-be-determined because company officials are in the planning stages at this point, Allen said.
"The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (S.97), signed into law in September 2017, authorizes the VTR. The VTR is a DOE-funded project program which will receive funding through annual budget appropriations from Congress. The VTR program currently has appropriations of $35 million in 2018 and $65 million in 2019," Allen said in an email.
The United States does not currently have the capability to test these rapidly evolving advanced nuclear fuels and materials, said Peggy McCullough, a Bechtel senior vice president and general manager of Bechtel’s Nuclear, Security and Operations business line, in the release.
Design and cost estimates will help the DOE make a decision on whether to construct a sodium-cooled fast test reactor in the United States. If so, the reactor could become operational as early as 2026, officials said in the release.
"We are excited to be leading this next chapter for our industry. The U.S. has dozens of reactor designs that will benefit from the testing capabilities of the VTR, allowing it to regain its leadership role in the global nuclear industry," Allen said in his email.
There a few countries that have this test capability, including Russia, according to leaders in the nuclear industry. The development of a VTR in the nation would reign in advanced nuclear reactor experiments currently being performed outside the United States.
"Advanced reactors hold great promise but their fuels and materials need the proper testing before they can be licensed and used in energy-producing reactors," McCullough said "The U.S. currently has no capability to test these components. That testing capability is what the Versatile Test Reactor will provide. It's extremely important for the science community, industry, regulators, and the future of nuclear energy research."