If a U.S.-based researcher or reactor designer needs to irradiate fuel or material with fast neutrons for testing, their current options are extremely limited. No domestic test facility can provide enough fast neutrons to do anything more than slowly irradiate a small quantity of tiny samples.
Anything more requires the full cooperation of either Russia or China. It doesn’t take too much expertise or imagination to realize both of those options are difficult, expensive and loaded with risk in terms of schedule, intellectual property protection, export control limitations and test conditions.
Lack of a facility hasn’t stopped people from recognizing that fast reactors have sufficient attractions to make them worth a considerable effort. Well resourced teams like Bill Gates’s TerraPower that are deeply interested in fast reactors have spent the money and taken the risks associated with performing tests in available facilities.
Mission and requirements for fast neutron testing
Last summer, John Kotek, in his role as the Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Energy tasked the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee with evaluating the mission and requirements for a facility that could provide a domestic source of enough fast neutrons to support the testing that will be needed to design and license fast reactors here.
The committee completed its work in December and produced a draft report. At the recent Advanced Reactor Technical Summit, Dr. Al Sattelberger, the chairman of the NEAC and a participant in the evaluation effort, described the document and its conclusions.
The financially unconstrained conclusion of the group of evaluators, most with long experience in the DOE’s National Lab complex, is that the U.S. needs a new test reactor. The report includes a set of capabilities that the new facility should have.
There is no design effort in progress, no site identified, and no money in the budget for such a facility.
I was in the audience and took the opportunity to ask the obvious question. “The U.S. owns something called the Fast Flux Test Facility. Did your committee consider restoring the FFTF?”
Dr. Sattelberger, who had introduced himself as a chemist among mostly nuclear engineers, responded as follows.
“I think that’s been studied up one end and down the other…. e facility went critical 35 years ago, 1980ish, so it’s actually been a long time since we built something. That reactor did not supply electrons to the grid, maybe one of its shortcomings.”
“But I’ve heard a number of times in the course of this afternoon about how much new technology has been developed over the last 20 years that can be brought to bear, and I think there’s a whole generation of students and engineers that would like to take a crack at building that next generation fast test reactor.”
Reuse, restore, repair and repurpose
Granting that Dr. Sattelberger is an advisor and not a representative of the Department of Energy, his response was still troubling. It was roughly equivalent to the response of a privileged teenager who says he wants mobility but then holds out for a dream car with options that haven’t been invented yet as a preferred path over fixing up the classic Cadillac loaded with all of the available options that is gathering dust in Grandma’s garage.
His more impatient and practical sister might decide to go kick the tires on the Cadillac, find out what it would take to restore the vehicle to a like-new condition and imagine its nearer term potential and value.
Dr. Sattelberger was right to note that there have been numerous studies done evaluating the option of using the FFTF for its designed purpose. One of the most comprehensive studies was completed in April 2007 by the Columbia Basin Consulting Group (CBCG) for the Tri-City Industrial Development Council.
That study – Siting Study For Hanford Advanced Fuels Test & Research Center – was funded by DOE as part of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) program.
The evaluators were particularly well-suited to the task; several of the consultants were, at the time, relatively recently retired engineers and operators from the Energy Department who had deep experience at the FFTF during its operational lifetime and its subsequent deactivation.
Bill Stokes, still with CBCG, led that study effort and shared a copy of the report. He emphasized the talent of the crew who did the evaluation and stated that they were not motivated by self interest; they were beyond the point of needing a job.
The 116 page document provides a detailed description of an amazing facility provided with the kinds of capabilities affordable at a time when developing fast reactors was a national priority. Though some dismiss the FFTF as old, it is about 15 to 20 years newer than most of the other test reactors in the U.S. and only has about ten years worth of operational wear.
It has largely been protected from any permanent damage. Fortunately, Grandma never got around to investing the money that destruction and cleanup of her “old” Cadillac would have required.
Here is the pithy concluding statement from the report:
“In conclusion, the FFTF could be ready to pull rods for transmutation or advanced fuels testing in 60 to 66 months at a cost of $500 million. If a decision were made in 2008 to change the mission to the prototype Advanced Recycle Reactor, the facility could be modified with a power generator and be in commercial power operation in 48 months from the decision to proceed at a total facility reactivation and modification cost of approximately $750 million.”
Those numbers included a 20% contingency. Stokes said that very little has changed at the site during the past 10 years, though the numbers will probably need some revision.
Real world experience opportunity
There are more than enough opportunities for young and midlevel engineers and scientists to get involved in pie-in-the-sky design efforts to develop a new digital reactor. [That is my term for what Rickover would have called a “paper reactor” in his less electronic era.]
The FFTF is an existing facility with real materials, real pumps, real valves, real fuel handling devices.
Most importantly for the future of U.S. nuclear technical leadership, the FFTF can provide 5 to 10 times the fast neutron flux of any existing facility and it has the testing location capacity to support numerous parallel experiments.
Since it already exists, its siting process cannot become a new battleground for the ancient rivalries between the national labs, their local economic boosters and their congressional representatives.
(Note: The link under the “rivalries” statement is a fascinating clipping from page 4 of the Jan 29, 1967 edition of the Idaho State Journal. It’s a 50 year old description of the political/booster effort to convince the AEC to site the FFTF in Washington that includes a lament by Idaho boosters about the fact that they were not equally well organized to find new missions for their laboratory facility.)
The facility has its required state and local permits and is covered by an active environmental impact statement. It might be operational before the first shovel full of dirt could be turned for a new facility whose requirements document isn’t even started.
Stuart Maloy is the advanced materials test lead at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Here is how he responded when asked about the urgency of a fast neutron test reactor.
“I am very interested in a facility for fast neutron irradiation of core reactor materials. It would greatly accelerate the development of improved radiation tolerant materials for nuclear fuel cladding applications.”
That statement is applicable to conventional reactors as well as fast reactors. Much of the neutron flux that affects cladding materials hasn’t been moderated.
The FFTF offers an almost immediately available place for a new generation of nuclear professionals to learn that fast neutron fission isn’t something for the distant future or forgotten past. Designing systems and making them work isn’t just a programming exercise.
There’s a cadre of willing and available teachers and mentors, some of who still reside in eastern Washington, who would eagerly accept the challenge of engaging in the task of transferring their knowledge to a new generation.
It’s time to accept reality, quit holding out for a new facility and begin taking full advantage of our inheritance.
Reaction from Idaho National Laboratory
While writing the above, I had contacted the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) for their comments. Unfortunately, I sent my the information request to the wrong office. The process of routing the request and obtaining a response thus took longer than usual, so the response missed the deadline for the edition of Fuel Cycle Week in which the article was run.
Before simply republishing that article here, I asked INL to provide an updated response and provided a copy of the initial article. Here is the response provided by INL Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives.
INL would like to provide you the following information, which all can be attributed to Hans Gougar (title below):
There is a strong need for fast neutron irradiations as expressed by potential users. There are four potential approaches to meeting these user needs:
- Use of thermal irradiation reactors (such as HFIR or ATR): limited fast irradiations can be performed in thermal reactors, but irradiation conditions are usually not prototypical enough to create data required in a formal fuel development program for non-LWR fast reactor designs.
- Use of foreign fast irradiation reactors: such irradiations have been performed in the past, but they typically have very long schedules, due both to lack of available space in these reactors and to the difficulties in transporting experimental samples to and from a foreign country.
- The restart of FFTF has already been studied by DOE: Siting Study For Hanford Advanced Fuels Test & Research Center.
- A new fast test reactor: would utilize a modern design and new experimental approaches; it would provide capabilities well adapted to current and future needs for advanced power reactors.
Aside: It’s worth noting that the study mentioned in item #3 is the CBCG study conducted for the GNEP program that is mentioned earlier in this article. That study describes FFTF as an incredible asset. Here is another quote from the Executive Summary of the Siting Study for Hanford Advanced Fuels Test & Research Center.
The reactivation of the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) complex and the Fuels and Materials Examination Facility (FMEF) represents an opportunity for DOE to accelerate a commercially viable and sustainable closed fuel cycle by at least a decade. DOE will gain a substantial reduction in programmatic risk through a cost-effective test program using existing facilities, and realize a multi-billion dollar savings compared to the cost for constructing new test or prototype facilities. The impacts may not become apparent until after the nation is committed to the selected path and these facilities are constructed and have begun operations.
That quote introduces an additional facility – the FMEF – that makes the FFTF site even more attractive. This is how the report briefly describes the FMEF.
Fuels and Materials Examination Facility – The FMEF was constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s as part of the LMR Program. The original mission for the facility included post-irradiation examination of irradiated fuels and materials as well as fast spectrum reactor test and driver fuel manufacture. The facility was originally designed to ERDA 6301 for missions that required enhanced safeguards and security. The facility was completed but not occupied for any programmatic mission. It is therefore uncontaminated and available to support GNEP.
GNEP could use FMEF to fabricate fuel on a prototypic scale as well as to assemble FFTF Driver Fuel and actinide fuels that will be needed for GNEP.
The FMEF consists of a 98-foot high Process Building with an attached Mechanical Equipment Wing on the west side and an Entry Wing across the south side. The 175-foot wide by 270-foot long Process Building provides about 188,000 ft2 of operations space. The 98-foot height makes the Process Building as tall as a seven-story office building. The Process Building also extends 35 feet below ground. The building is divided into six operating floors.
There is one more facility – Maintenance and Storage Facility (MASF) – that is described in the report. It is an integral and important part of the currently idled FFTF complex. Here is the brief summary description of the MASF found on page 16 of the Siting Study.
The MASF is a multi-purpose service center which supports FFTF. The main building contains a 28,000 ft.2 area serviced by a 60-ton overhead bridge crane. One half of this area is serviced by a 200-ton crane, and is 105 ft. high and contains floor space for repairs and maintenance of large equipment. It has below-grade shielded hot cells for sodium cleaning. A special feature is a large shielded enclosure that contains two shielded decontamination rooms. These can be used for both remote and hands-on cleaning of small equipment items and tools that are contaminated with radioactive material.
Any open-minded decision maker motivated to support development of advanced reactors with a capable fast neutron test facility would be impressed by the potential of the facility that already exists. Any reasonably experienced and knowledgable nuclear project manager would recognize that the path for building a brand new facility would be far more tortuous and fraught with the potential for serious delays or even cancellation somewhere along the 15-20 years the project would require starting today.
INL’s response to my request for information contained an additional quote.
“We agree that there is a significant need for a fast neutron irradiation capability in the United States that is hampering U.S. industry, government research and international efforts to develop advanced reactor designs. INL and partner national laboratories have begun early evaluation of potential test reactor design options that would fill this urgent need. Designing and building a new fast test reactor should be thoroughly evaluated against the other alternatives, including FFTF restart, using the increasingly limited capacity of foreign fast test reactors, and/or the use of existing U.S.-based thermal reactors.”
Hans Gougar, director of Advanced Reactor Technologies in INL’s Nuclear Science & Technology division
DOE has a documented process for capital acquisitions that is as arduous and cumbersome as the major system acquisition process used by the Department of Defense. There are some pretty solid reasons why each milestone step is bureaucratically and politically important. Done correctly, the process can help avoid technical SNAFUs like the A-12 and political quagmires like the MOX facility.
However, the process can be accelerated when there is a need and an obvious answer to that need sitting around in the land-based equivalent of a mothball fleet. With libraries worth of QA documents, the physical presence of the facilities and some subtle political pressure, it should be possible for a focused and motivated DOE to power through both CD-0 (Statement of Mission Need) and CD-1 (Analysis of Alternatives) in record time.