The contractor that runs Idaho National Laboratory is looking for private partners to build the first new test reactor in the United States in decades.

The Versatile Test Reactor will have dedicated “fast-neutron-spectrum” testing capability, creating the conditions necessary to see how fuels, materials and sensors endure when battered with radiation in the form of fast neutrons. Assistant Secretary of Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal, who ran the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear before being named to her current job a year ago, made the announcement Monday at an American Nuclear Society meeting in Washington, D.C. The Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear is managed by INL.

“This morning, I have the pleasure to announce that Battelle Energy Alliance, the day-to-day contractor for Idaho National Laboratory, is seeking industry partnerships to develop and deploy the Versatile Test Reactor,” Baranwal said according to a news release from Battelle, the contractor that runs Idaho National Laboratory.

INL is leading the project in partnership with Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest and Savannah River national laboratories, plus industry and university partners. Battelle posted a solicitation online on Monday seeking private industry partners on the reactor’s development. Responses are due by Jan. 10.

“The scope of such a Partnership could include but not be limited to the development and deployment of a new fast neutron testing capability, other uses of VTR capabilities beyond just advanced reactors design and licensing, reducing the cost and schedule risk of new nuclear plant design and construction and other compatible uses of VTR capabilities,” it says.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced this summer the reactor would be built either at INL or at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. DOE announced in August that the National Reactor Innovation Center, a public-private reactor development partnership, would be sited at INL, a move that was seen as raising the chances that the Versatile Test Reactor would also be sited here.

DOE will decide, perhaps in 2021, whether to proceed with building the VTR, at which point Congress would need to appropriate funding for the project to proceed, Battelle said. Congress has already budgeted $100 million over the past couple of years to fund the project’s development. Construction cost estimates vary from a low of $3 billion to $3.5 billion to a higher estimate of $3.9 billion to $6 billion that Reuters reported in April.

If the federal government moves forward, construction could start in 2022 and operations in 2026.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.