USA vs Russia – The Next Generation Nuclear Race

  • The US has not upgraded its nuclear facilities in over 20 years and currently does not have a modern fast neutron-spectrum testing facility.
  • A main strategic purpose for the VTR is to enable the optimized use of nuclear energy for domestic markets and to secure the country's global and scientific leadership.
  • Russia is the world leader with a 22% global market share of nuclear installations. Thus far, over 600 research reactors have been constructed.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) announced open hearings on the environment impact assessment regarding the construction of a Versatile Test Reactor (VTR). The project announcement was originally made by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry on February 28, 2019, with a tentative completion date of 2026. Dr. Kemal Pasamehmetoglu is a nuclear engineer and the executive director of the Versatile Test Reactor Project at the Idaho National Laboratory.  GE-HITACHI is the subcontractor for the design support.

Image Source: Energy.go

The US has not upgraded its nuclear facilities in over 20 years and currently does not have a modern fast neutron-spectrum testing facility. The next generation reactors are needed in order to regain global leadership and to counter Russia’s technology. One of the main missions of the DOE is the nuclear security of the United States. A main strategic purpose for the VTR is to enable the optimized use of nuclear energy for domestic markets and to secure the country’s global and scientific leadership.

Public input hearings will be held this month, including webcast meetings on August 27-28 and the process set to close on September 4th.

The VTR capabilities include:

  •  An intense, neutron-irradiation environment with prototypic spectrum to determine irradiation tolerance and chemical compatibility with other reactor materials, particularly the coolant.
  • Testing that provides a fundamental understanding of materials performance, validation of models for more rapid future development, and engineering-scale validation of materials performance in support of licensing efforts.
  •  A versatile testing capability to address diverse technology options and sustained and adaptable testing environments.
  • Focused irradiations, either long- or short-term, with heavily instrumented experimental devices, and the possibility to do in-situ measurements and quick extraction of samples. An accelerated schedule to regain and sustain U.S. technology leadership and to enable the competitiveness of U.S-based industry entities in the advanced reactor markets. This can be achieved through use of mature technologies for the reactor design (e.g., sodium coolant in a pool type, metallic-alloy fueled fast reactor) while enabling innovative experimentation.
Source: gain.inl.gov

The US is still using technology from the 1980s, which would be comparable to a BOR-60 fast neutron reactor in Russia. It is one of the key experimental facilities globally for the performance of the large-scale tests of fuel. It has been in operation since 1969 (during the Soviet Era) and continues to be in operation despite being scheduled for shut down in 2014.

Russia is currently building a next generation, world’s most powerful, MBIR sodium cooled fast reactor with the involvement of the N.A. Dollezhal Scientific Research and Design Institute of Electrical Power Engineering Technology in Dimitrovgrad.

It is on track for completion by 2020. The MBIR is a 150 MWt sodium-cooled fast reactor and will have a design life of up to 50 years. It will be a multi-loop research reactor capable of testing lead, lead-bismuth and gas coolants, and running on MOX (mixed uranium and plutonium oxide) fuel. NIIAR (Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation) intends to set up on-site closed fuel cycle facilities for the MBIR, using pyrochemical reprocessing it has developed at pilot scale.

The major difference between the two reactors is that MBIR is designed for the traditional uranium oxide petroleum and VTR is designed for the metallic alloy fuel. The metallic alloy fuel can produce a higher neuron stream vs oxide, but oxide is ceramic and has withstood the capabilities of the nuclear expansion.  Nevertheless, metallic alloy reactor fuels are gaining large interest.

Currently, Russia is the world leader with a 22% global market share of nuclear installations using Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation designs. Thus far, over 600 research reactors have been constructed.

It will be fascinating to observe the nuclear race between the US and Russia over the next two decades.

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Christina Kitova

I spent most of my professional life in finance, insurance risk management litigation.

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