INL Very High Temperature Reactor
In the hospital waiting room last week I was astonished to find the January 2, 1989, copy of Time magazine. Time described an "inherently safe...heat-resistant ceramic spheres...cooled by inert helium gas" reactor to be built by the US government in Idaho Falls. This pebble bed reactor project has been awaiting funding for at least 18 years.
The 1989 Time magazine also contained an article, Global Warming Feeling the Heat, quoting remarks by James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the first high level US scientist to emphasize the effect of society's CO2 emissions on climate.
It's taking us more than 18 years to face up to the facts that
- our CO2 emissions contribute to global warming, and
- nuclear power can reduce CO2 emissions.
Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is situated on 890 square miles of the southeastern Idaho desert. Established in 1949, it has been the principal locus of research and testing of nuclear power systems in the US. The first nuclear reactor to produce electric power operated there in 1951. INL has designed and constructed 52 nuclear reactors, including breeder reactors, marine propulsion reactors, boiling water reactors, and a gas cooled reactor. INL employs approximately 8,000 scientists, engineers, technicians, and management personnel.
INL currently operates two nuclear reactors, including the Advanced Test Reactor, used to test materials for building future reactors. Materials can swell or become brittle after long periods of radiation. This reactor operates at such a high neutron flux that the effect of years of exposure in commercial reactors can be duplicated in weeks or months.
Pebble Bed Reactor Fuel
Together with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and BWXT, INL has been fabricating ceramic-encapsulated uranium fuel for the pebble bed reactor in 2006. Sample fuel cylindrical pellets were placed in the Advanced Test Reactor to test the materials in the high neutron flux. These fuel pellets will be removed and examined in 2008, having been exposed to the equivalent of many years of exposure within a pebble bed reactor. INL plans to test the complete fuel spheres as well.
US Energy Policy Act of 2005
The US Energy Policy Act of 2005 directs the establishment of a Next Generation Nuclear Plant to produce electricity, hydrogen, or both. INL is specified as the site of the nuclear reactor and associated plant. The Act authorizes $1.25 billion for the project, however the Congress has not yet appropriated this money.
Currently there are six candidate technologies under study at INL.
- Gas Cooled Fast Reactor (GRF)
- Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR)
- Supercritical Water Cooled Reactor (SCWR)
- Sodium Cooled Fast Reactor (SFR)
- Lead Cooled Fast Reactor (LCR)
- MSR Molten Salt Reactor (MSR)
Hydrogen is a feedstock for the production of hydrocarbon vehicle fuels, such as H3COH (methanol) and H3COCH3 (dimethyl ether). Efficient production of hydrogen is possible with the high 900-950 C temperature of a very high temperature gas reactor, such as the pebble bed reactor. Two candidate hydrogen production technologies are the sulfur-iodine cycle and high-temperature electrolysis under study at INL.
The PBR is a prime candidate for the Generation IV prototype to be built at Idaho National Laboratories.