Co-Authored by Jessica Lovering, The Breakthrough Institute, and Todd Allen, Idaho National Laboratory
This is the first of four articles outlining recommendations from the Idaho National Laboratory led Nuclear Innovation Workshops.
While Silicon Valley may idolize the lone entrepreneur innovating from her garage, there are many obvious reasons why we don’t want people playing around with nuclear materials at home. Historically, the federal government has been the only organization with the security and financial resources to develop new and innovative nuclear reactor designs, usually through directed missions located at a national laboratory. But now there are dozens of private companies with significant investors looking to commercialize their own nuclear reactor designs. How can these entrepreneurs design, test and license such complex technologies in time to meet our immediate energy and environmental needs?
This past March, Idaho National Laboratory hosted a set of six simultaneous workshops, the Nuclear Innovation Workshops, aimed at developing creative policy solutions to accelerate innovation in nuclear energy. One of the top recommendations to come out of the workshops was the need for a national test bed or beds where those working on nuclear technologies can carry out experiments to test the safety and reliability of their fuels, materials and reactor concepts.
Who needs a test bed?
A recent report from Third Way found that there are over forty organizations working to develop advanced nuclear technologies in the US and Canada. These organizations range from small, venture capital backed start-ups to major university efforts. The technologies range from accident-tolerant fuels to molten salt reactors and even fusion designs.
While many of these designs are based on concepts tested and built by national labs in the 1960s and 1970s, today’s companies are working on evolutions of these designs that take advantage of advanced materials, computer modeling techniques and new market structures. How will novel fuels respond in different kinds of accidents? What’s the best material to build a specific reactor core, will it withstand 60 years of irradiation?
The engineers developing these new reactors may know how they would go about answering these questions, but they most likely don’t have access to the experimental facilities to solve these problems.
Where a private company may have a great idea for a new nuclear technology, traditional private financing is not enough to move these technologies from early stage R&D to a proof-of-concept prototype. And once companies have proven their reactor on the small scale, they face another large barrier to scale-up their technology to full commercialization. In the innovation literature, we refer to these barriers as “valleys of death”, specifically the early-stage “Technological Valley of Death” and the later-stage “Commercialization Valley of Death.”
What do these innovators need from a test bed?
To bridge each of these valleys of death, innovators need access to different kinds of test beds. For the early-stage technological valley of death, companies need access to an R&D Test Bed, which allows developers to quickly and predictably eliminate technical risks and uncertainties from their design. For example, developers need to know how their fuels, coolants and reactor materials will respond to normal conditions as well as accident conditions. An R&D test bed could provide the facility to stress test these components and mitigate uncertainty and allow developers to fine-tune their design. Once these technological risks are eliminated, it can give investors confidence to move forward with increased financing for a reactor design.
For the later stage commercialization, companies need access to a Demonstration and Deployment Test Bed, which can reduce costs and improve performance of their prototype as it moves to full commercialization. The cost of future reactor technologies has been notoriously difficult to predict, one function of a D&D test bed would be to remove engineering uncertainty for the construction process and allow developers to give a better estimate of costs.
Currently much of the infrastructure needed to support a robust R&D Test Bed in the U.S. exists or will soon be completed. The capabilities are distributed across U.S. national laboratories, universities and industrial laboratories. This includes thermal spectrum test reactors for steady-state irradiation testing and the soon to be re-started TREAT reactor for transient testing. Programs are developing improved in-pile instrumentation for better understanding and control of irradiation tests. Hot cells exist for post-irradiation examination and increasingly instrumentation for conducting fundamental material science studies on radioactive materials are becoming available, including electron microscopes and mechanical testing systems.
To a limited extent, radioactive material is being examined at DOE light source and neutron scattering facilities. A few ion beam facilities exist that are available through user facility access. Numerous thermal hydraulic test systems currently exist for various coolant options. Complimenting the experimental capability is a growing use of high-performance computing, much of it available through user facilities run by the Department of Energy. Beyond the U.S. capability, many countries have similar infrastructure for developing nuclear technology.
The major missing elements of the R&D test bed in the U.S. infrastructure are a fast spectrum test reactor, dedicated materials damage facilities at Basic Energy Science User Facilities and component and system-level testing capability. Fast reactors exist in Russia, China, Japan, and India but have not been routinely available for testing for both technical and political reasons.
For Demonstration and Deployment test beds, U.S. national laboratory facilities may be desired for testing a first of a kind design. They maintain security forces, emergency response capability, grid connectivity and easily accessible research and testing capability that could be desirable to a vendor building a demonstration or prototype facility.
Public RD&D for nuclear in the US has been on the decline for the last few decades, but private funding has grown dramatically in just the last five years. However, private companies don’t have access to the same network of experimental facilities that enabled innovative reactor development at the national labs in the 1960s. A test bed – either for R&D, D&D or both – could be the most effective way to accelerate development of new reactors. Additionally, a test bed could reduce risk for early-stage companies, leverage private funding, and increase private investment, as risk is decreased.