It's time to cancel the Versatile Test Reactor

It's time to cancel the Versatile Test Reactor
© Greg Nash

In February 2019, at the direction of Congress, then-Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party College football move rocks Texas legislature Trump tries to spin failed Texas endorsement: 'This was a win' MORE launched a project to build a nuclear test reactor to enable researchers to “conduct crucial advanced [nuclear power] technology and materials testing within the United States in a safe, efficient and timely way.”  

The Department of Energy (DOE) claimed that this facility, the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), was essential for closing a long-standing gap in U.S. research infrastructure, and warned that “failure to develop this capability on an accelerated schedule will lead to further degradation of the U.S. ability to develop advanced nuclear energy technologies.” The VTR would provide an intense source of “fast” neutrons, rather than the lower-energy neutrons produced in United States reactors today — useful for developing a new and different breed of reactors, called fast reactors. 

The DOE initially projected that the VTR could be up and running by 2026, for a cost of under $6 billion. However, no sooner had the project begun than lawmakers began underfunding it, virtually guaranteeing increased cost and delay. Finally, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill earlier this month that would eliminate VTR funding entirely.  

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House appropriators have decisively turned away from a project deemed essential only a few years ago because, simply put, the VTR will probably be obsolete before it ever generates a neutron. This is an unnecessary project, and Congress should terminate it. 

In August 2020, the DOE initiated contract negotiations with a consortium including General Electric-Hitachi (GEH) and TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates, to begin work on VTR design. Only a few months later, however, the DOE awarded TerraPower and GEH funding under a different program to build a second, much larger fast reactor called the “Natrium.” The Natrium would not be used to conduct testing, but to demonstrate commercial electricity production. TerraPower has laid out a very aggressive schedule to meet a congressional mandate to build the Natrium in a mere seven years. 

Why the urgency? Because developers of so-called advanced reactors such as fast reactors are in a hurry to show that they can make a major contribution to combating the climate crisis. Advocates of these reactors have been singing their praises for decades, claiming without evidence they will be safer, easier to build and cheaper than current technologies — and now is perhaps their last chance to deliver. William Magwood, director of the Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris and a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently said it best: “If these technologies cannot be brought to market … in about a decade … they may not be relevant to the energy transition.”  

However, it’s not clear that such reactors would be useful even if they could be commercialized quickly. Although TerraPower claims that the Natrium will be safer and more efficient, in fact, the design has serious safety flaws — such as the potential for runaway chain reactions similar to what caused the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — and would require much more mined uranium than current reactors to generate the same amount of electricity.  

But even believers in the technology would have a hard time justifying why taxpayers should pay the same companies billions to build two nearly identical fast reactors at the same time. The DOE, in a major shift, revealed in its fiscal 2022 budget request that it may not even decide whether to build the VTR until late 2027 in order to “sequence” its schedule to follow the Natrium. Optimistically, assuming the VTR takes five years to build and requires two years of start-up testing, the reactor wouldn’t be available for research until the mid-2030s — far too late for all the graduate students that DOE is funding to develop VTR experiments, who will likely have moved on long before then.  

The DOE argues that because the Natrium’s purpose is to demonstrate electricity production, it would not be a suitable test reactor. But a few years ago, GEH submitted a proposal to the DOE for a fast reactor that could serve both purposes. Converting the Natrium project to serve as both a test and a demonstration reactor would save billions while allowing those graduate students to begin their experiments years sooner than if they had to wait for the VTR. Despite this, VTR officials have said that they are not considering combining the VTR and Natrium projects. But the DOE owes it to taxpayers to study this option. Otherwise, there’s a significant chance that neither project will receive sufficient funding to succeed, and Nuclear Energy Agency director Magwood’s warning will come to pass: This type of reactor will prove irrelevant for the energy transition. 

Edwin Lyman is the director of Nuclear Power Safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.