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Idaho National Laboratory is the preferred site for a proposed test reactor that the U.S. Department of Energy is developing, DOE announced Thursday.

The Versatile Test Reactor would be the first new test reactor built in the U.S. in decades and would test how fuels, materials and sensors hold up when battered with radiation in the form of fast neutrons, which the reactor could generate at higher speeds and concentrations than existing test infrastructure. DOE announced Thursday that the reactor’s draft environmental impact statement will be published in mid-December, and DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy said INL would be listed as the preferred alternative in the statement.

“This announcement demonstrates just how important the lab is to the future of nuclear energy,” U.S. Sen. Jim Risch tweeted. “Having the (Versatile Test Reactor) at INL will allow American companies to perform nuclear testing here in the U.S. — another step toward energy independence.”

The other site being considered is Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The draft environmental impact statement will “analyze the potential environmental, community, and cultural resource impacts” of putting it at either location, DOE said in a news release.

“The Versatile Test Reactor continues to be a high-priority project for DOE to ensure nuclear energy plays a role in our country’s energy portfolio,” Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said in a statement. “Examination of the environmental impacts reflects DOE’s commitment to clean energy sources and will serve as an example for others looking to deploy advanced reactor technologies.”

DOE established the Versatile Test Reactor program in 2018, in response to requests from U.S. companies and to the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, whose sponsors included Idaho U.S. Sens. Risch and Mike Crapo and which directed DOE to take a number of steps to encourage reactor development. The National Reactor Innovation Center that DOE announced a year ago would be sited at INL was also created by that bill. DOE expects to make a final decision on the design, technology selection, and location of the Versatile Test Reactor in late 2021.

“The VTR team has done a great job of meeting the expedited schedule that Congress set for the project,” said Rita Baranwal, Ph.D., assistant secretary for DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. “The team has developed a strong conceptual design that will help fill this long-standing gap in our country’s research infrastructure and will support decades of energy innovation.”

DOE plans to submit the draft for public comment early next month.

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