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Arguments against the Versatile Test Reactor undermine America’s climate future

Nuclear power plant, Sept. 8, 2021.

In July, House and Senate appropriators zeroed out funding requested by the Biden administration for the Versatile Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratories, a decision that could have disastrous impacts on America’s role as a leader in the next generation of advanced nuclear technologies. The VTR would allow advanced nuclear reactor developers here in the U.S. to test fuels, materials and components for fast neutron reactors for the next 60 years or more. 

These new reactor technologies offer a range of important safety, efficiency and economic advantages over large conventional nuclear reactors. They represent a critical pathway to cutting emissions to address climate change, especially in hard to decarbonize sectors of the economy such as steel production and refining. They are critical to assuring that the United States remains a global leader in advanced nuclear technology and nuclear security. 

Predictably, opposition to the VTR has been led by entrenched opponents of nuclear energy, who have long attempted to regulate conventional nuclear power into obsolescence and fear that innovation of the sort that many U.S. nuclear startups are presently betting on might give the technology a second life. 

In a recent op-ed in The Hill, the author argues that the development of the VTR is unnecessary and that, instead, the government should convert the proposed Natrium Reactor, which is slated for development with federal support in Wyoming later this decade, “to serve as both a test and a demonstration reactor.” Yet elsewhere in the op-ed, the author explicitly argues that the Natrium reactor “has serious safety flaws” and “would require much more mined uranium than current reactors to generate the same amount of electricity.”

In fact, the author insists the Natrium reactor is too costly and will take too long to build. What the author is arguing for is not for the federal government to support the demonstration of the Natrium reactor that TerraPower, its developer, proposes to build, but rather a different, much smaller reactor, that will not be built at a commercial scale nor generate grid electricity. A science experiment, in other words, not a serious demonstration of commercial technology, one whose primary purpose, by the author’s own acknowledgment, would be to serve as a test site for “graduate students that DOE is funding to develop VTR experiments.”

By contrast, the proposed Natrium plant is being developed with support from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. It is not wholly funded by DOE, as the VTR will be, but rather with very substantial investment from the private sector. It will generate electricity for the grid, store energy to back up variable wind and solar generation systems, and will be built at the site of a retiring coal plant.

What the author is really targeting is not the Versatile Test Reactor but the Natrium Reactor, not the science experiment but the commercial demonstration of advanced nuclear reactors. What he actually proposes is to kill the Natrium Reactor project by turning it into a much smaller experimental reactor, thereby rendering the Versatile Test Reactor duplicative — shrinking the former down, essentially, to a small science experiment.

In service of that effort, the author makes all manner of easily falsifiable claims. No, the Natrium Reactor is not capable of having a runaway chain reaction like the one that caused the Chernobyl accident. The basic physics of the reactor core would shut down the fission reaction long before such a chain of events could occur. No, the Natrium Reactor does not require more uranium than a conventional reactor per unit of energy it produces. It uses its fuel much more efficiently.

These and other claims are drawn entirely upon a self-published report based, by the author’s own acknowledgment, on his own “qualitative judgments,” reviewed only by his employer, and contradicted by an enormous peer-reviewed and refereed literature, much of it based on technical evidence from decades of full-scale tests. 

The author’s position reflects not a considered position informed by the latest scientific and technological progress but rather a posture toward both environmental challenges and nuclear energy that has hardly evolved since the 1970s, before most people had ever heard of climate change, much less come to terms with the scale of technological change that would be necessary to address it.

Today, we simply can’t afford that sort of dogmatism. Wind and solar energy have made great progress, but they remain limited due to their intermittency. Nuclear remains the largest source of clean energy in the United States and globally and advanced nuclear energy, along with wind and solar, represents one of the few low-carbon technologies with the potential to scale to significantly address the challenge. A nation that takes that challenge seriously will make sustained investments in clean energy technologies across the board, including nuclear. That will mean both supporting the initial commercialization of promising technologies like the Natrium Reactor and building state-of-the-art facilities like the Versatile Test Reactor to support ongoing nuclear innovation.

Like all low-carbon technology, advanced nuclear reactors, while promising, are not a panacea. But with wise investments and sensible regulation, a new era of affordable, safe and scalable advanced nuclear energy is possible. Both the VTR and the Natrium reactor are wise investments in a critical technology that we are likely going to need.

Ted Nordhaus is founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, a global research center based in Berkeley, Calif., focused on identifying and promoting technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges. Dr. Adam Stein is a senior nuclear analyst at the Breakthrough Institute. 

Tags clean energy Climate change Energy low-carbon low-carbon technology Nuclear energy nuclear plant Versatile Test Reactor VTR

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