The Versatile Test Reactor Debate: Round 2

June 11, 2018 | 4:03 pm
Ed Lyman
Director, Nuclear Power Safety

In mid-February, the House of Representatives passed the “Nuclear Energy Research Infrastructure Act of 2017” (H.R. 4378). It authorizes the secretary of energy to spend nearly $2 billion to build and begin operating a facility called a “versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source” by the end of 2025 “to the maximum extent practicable.” The purpose of the facility would be to provide an intense source of fast neutrons that could be used by startup companies developing fast reactors for power production. Current US power and test reactors do not generate large quantities of fast neutrons.

However, the facility itself would be a fairly large, experimental fast neutron reactor, likely fueled with weapon-usable plutonium, and would pose significant security and safety risks. H.R. 4378 authorizes the Department of Energy (DOE) to construct this facility, now known as the “Versatile Test Reactor” (VTR), without really knowing how much it would cost or how long it would take, let alone whether there was a significant need for it in the first place. In fact, at the time of the bill’s passage in the House, the DOE had not even begun to conduct such an analysis. This is bad public policy.

Even though H.R. 4378 has not yet become law, Congress is already funding the VTR program. The DOE requested $10 million in its Fiscal Year 2018 budget request for preliminary studies of the VTR and $15 million in its Fiscal Year 2019 budget request to begin “preconceptual design development.” But the FY 2018 omnibus budget bill that President Trump signed into law in March provided the DOE with $35 million—$25 million more than the DOE requested. In FY 19, while Senate appropriators would only provide the DOE with its $15 million request, the House has voted to give the VTR $65 million. And Congressman Randy Weber (R-TX), a co-sponsor of H.R. 4378, is pushing to increase the final FY 19 appropriation to $100 million.

It is unclear what DOE could even do with all that money at this early stage of the project.

According to DOE official John Herczeg, the agency only began in April to determine the VTR’s “true cost and schedule” and will not decide whether to build it until after the study is completed in 2021. Congress should stop pressuring the DOE to move forward on construction of the VTR before this analysis is done. And the DOE should use some of the extra money to conduct a nonproliferation and nuclear terrorism impact assessment of the VTR.

In response to my February blog post criticizing the VTR project, the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the DOE facility where the VTR would likely be housed, issued a “technical rebuttal” containing numerous inaccuracies and misleading assertions.

More information has come out about the VTR project since I posted my critique that confirms many of my points. I have  issued a reply to INL’s rebuttal. Hopefully, it will shed more light on the substantial risks and questionable benefits of the VTR project.