How NRIC is helping advance technology for the nuclear power industry

The National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) is a national Department of Energy (DOE) program led by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) that enables collaborators to leverage the world-class capabilities of the US National Laboratory System. NRIC supports the construction and demonstration of advanced reactor systems through a suite of services and capabilities.

“Our vision is to support the demonstration of at least two advanced reactors by the end of 2025, in order to re-establish US nuclear energy leadership, and to support advanced commercial nuclear power by 2030, so that we can provide abundant energy clean to the world,” Dr. Ashley Finan, director of NRIC, told attendees during a presentation at the American Nuclear Society’s Winter Meeting and Technology Expo November 14 in Phoenix, Arizona.

“We really work to leverage the expertise, infrastructure and capabilities of national labs across the country, so not just at Idaho National Laboratory, but with many different national labs, and to help steer demonstrations to success,” he has declared.

“We are working to achieve this vision through our mission to inspire stakeholders and the public to enable innovators to test and demonstrate their technologies by enabling access to materials expertise and capabilities at national laboratories and to deliver results of success through efficient coordination of partners and resources,” said Finan.

NRIC has prepared a couple of demonstration reactor sites. Specifically, it is repurposing the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) dome to provide containment for advanced microreactor demonstrations. EBR-II was a sodium-cooled reactor that operated at the INL from 1964 to 1994. It had a rated thermal input of 62.5 MW, a secondary sodium closed intermediate loop, and a steam plant that produced 19 MW of electrical power through a conventional turbine generator. The repurposed facility, known as the DOME Test Bed, which stands for ‘Demonstration of Microreactor Experiments’, will house microreactors with thermal inputs up to 20 MW.

“Right now, the possibility of hosting high-temperature gas-fired reactors using high-dose low-enriched uranium is being established,” Finan said. “We have about five or so, really more than five companies, that are interested in using this that we’re working with now.” The first user is expected in 2024.

NRIC also has several experimental testbed projects underway. Among these are the Helium Component Test Facility, In-HotCell Thermal Creep Frame, Mechanisms Engineering Test Lab (METL), Molten Salt Thermophysical Examination Capabilities (MSTEC), and Virtual Test Bed.

“[The Helium Component Test Facility] it is an exciting project that has built on the investments made by the microreactor program. In the MAGNET [Microreactor AGile Non-nuclear Experimental Testbed] facility, … we added a helium component testing capability,” Finan explained. “This was completed earlier this year and we completed our first round of testing in October.”

The In-HotCell Thermal Creep Frame addresses a capability that was found to be missing through a gap analysis conducted by NRIC. As a result, engineers recommended adding the capacitance to the hot cells so that tests could be conducted on irradiated graphite materials.

“The Mechanisms Engineering Test Lab is an operating facility at Argonne National Laboratory, and NRIC is funding the operations of that facility to enable liquid metal components to be tested, right now, in liquid sodium,” said Finan.

Another missing capability was addressed through the MSTEC project. “This is a modular hot cell that will allow us to measure the thermophysical properties of irradiated molten salt fuels,” said Finan. NRIC plans to establish that capability in 2024.

The Virtual Test Bed is a partnership between NRIC and the Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation (NEAMS) program. “This takes a lot of the really great code that’s been developed in labs over the last few years and brings it one step closer to what industry needs, and then really applies it to demo examples so that industry can use those codes that were developed in the labs,” explained Finan.

The NRIC Resource Team offers nuclear innovators a way to access valuable national laboratory expertise. While it is limited to just 200 hours of national laboratory expert time per demonstration per year, it provides a quick and easy way to get help. “We can change them in a week or two, depending on the details of the project,” Finan said. “This allows innovators to work with a lab, to work with the experts, on a level that goes well beyond the initial hour phone call and allows them to dig into something with enough content to get some value out of it, but that isn’t need to wait six to 12 months for an agreement involving the creation of intellectual property”.

Examples of help provided by the NRIC resource team include, among other things, collaborating on test plans, interpreting code requirements, and helping demonstrate the pressure drop in a heat exchanger. “The feedback on this program has been really positive, so we hope to expand it in the future if resources allow,” said Finan.

NRIC collaborated with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Michigan to develop the Siting Tool for Advanced Nuclear Development (STAND). It provides a systematic way, based on users’ location preferences and priorities, to discover areas that may be suitable, explore areas to identify specific sites, and compare sites to identify an optimal option. Finan said it’s “a fantastic tool”.

One of the things Finan said keeps her up at night is worrying that successful demos might not ramp up. “We need to make sure that as we demonstrate nuclear technologies, we’re also doing the work that will support scalability and deployment,” she said. “So on that, we have a couple of businesses to address costs and markets, including advanced construction technologies to reduce costs.”

The list of activities NRIC is involved in is extensive. In addition to all the elements mentioned above, it also focuses on digital engineering initiatives; development of nuclear propulsion for commercial seagoing surface vessels; community outreach; collaboration with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on a number of licensing activities; transportation planning for advanced reactors, microreactors, and advanced reactor fuel; develop environmental justice and equity frameworks for future facilities; and more.

However, the primary focus of NRIC remains the demonstration of at least two advanced nuclear reactors. Finan said NRIC would work “to maintain progress to support demonstrations by the end of 2025 and sustained innovation thereafter.”

A timeline of advanced reactor projects that could unfold this decade. Source: NRIC/INL

Aaron Larson is the executive editor of POWER (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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