Energy Department’s New Innovation Center Will Be a Testbed for New Reactor Tech

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The National Reactor Innovation Center will bring all stakeholders together to build and test—and ultimately field—new ideas in nuclear energy production.

The Energy Department’s national labs are dedicated to helping the sector deliver energy to the American people. When it comes to nuclear power, the department opened a new innovation center to help industry develop new processes and technologies, specifically around reactors.

The National Reactor Innovation Center opened Wednesday, housed within the Idaho National Laboratory. The initiative—greenlit and funded through the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act that went into effect last year—is similar in structure to the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear, or GAIN, which began in late 2015. The new innovation center will operate in conjunction with GAIN by continuing to work with industry, while also bringing in the other national labs, federal agencies and academia.

The new center “provides private sector technology developers access to the strategic infrastructures and assets of the national laboratories,” according to an Energy Department fact sheet. “Companies can use these resources for commercial nuclear energy research, development, demonstration and deployment activities,” which the department plans to then disseminate throughout the industry.

“NRIC will enable the demonstration and deployment of advanced reactors that will define the future of nuclear energy,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a release Wednesday. “By bringing industry together with our national labs and university partners, we can enhance our energy independence and position the U.S. as a global leader in advanced nuclear innovation.”

The center will offer facilities and resources—including funding—for the various sector partners to test and demonstrate innovative reactor concepts that can then be funded in full by industry as those technologies are deployed.

By expanding the partnership beyond industry, “DOE shall leverage the technical expertise of relevant federal agencies and the national laboratories in order to minimize the time required to enable construction and operation of privately funded experimental reactors at national laboratories or other DOE-owned sites,” according to a summary of the 2018 bill.

The effort is also getting appropriations support. The House minibus for Energy and Water Development includes $5 million for the center in fiscal 2020. Using that funding, the center “plans to demonstrate small modular reactor and micro-reactor concepts within the next five years,” according to the Energy Department.

“I’m pleased to see the Department of Energy is making excellent progress in implementing our bill to advance nuclear energy in America,” said Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy. “It’s a key element of growing America’s safe and reliable nuclear energy industry and maintaining American leadership in nuclear science.”

The center was designed with four goals in mind, from the fact sheet:

  • Enable testing and demonstration of reactor concepts by the private sector.
  • Validate advanced nuclear reactor concepts.
  • Resolve technical challenges of advanced nuclear reactor concepts.
  • Provide general research and development to improve innovative technologies.