Idaho National Laboratory - National Reactor Innovation Center

Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters speaks to audience members during the announcement of the launch of the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) at Idaho National Laboratory on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.

Energy officials are celebrating the allocation of $160 million to deploy advanced nuclear reactors as a pivotal moment for advancing American energy leadership.

“I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it’s huge,” Mark Peters, the outgoing Idaho National Laboratory director, told reporters in a Wednesday conference call.

The Department of Energy on Tuesday announced that two companies, Terrapower LLC and X-energy, will each receive $80 million in matching grants toward developing reactors not cooled by water.

Much of the existing, aging fleet of nuclear reactors in the U.S. are cooled by water. Non-water-cooled reactors designs use varying coolants, such as gas or liquid metal. Domestic energy officials have long yearned for advanced reactor demonstration to close the United States’ gaps in capabilities compared to nations such as Russia and China.

“The awards are the first step of a new program that will strengthen American leadership in the next generation of nuclear technologies,” U.S. energy secretary Dan Brouillette said in a news release. “These partnerships will help maximize DOE’s investment in advanced reactors, which play a vital role in our clean energy strategy.”

Scientists say advanced reactors can reap heaps of benefits that water-cooled reactors can’t, such as being more fuel efficient and using excess heat to convert water into hydrogen for energy use. Experts say advanced reactors also are much safer.

Terrapower is working to build a reactor cooled by liquid sodium, reminiscent of the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II. Weeks before the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown that shook the nuclear industry in 1986, INL researchers deliberately shut all power down on EBR-II while it was operating; it didn’t meltdown. That demonstrated for the first time that technology could allow reactors to avoid catastrophic accidents without immediate human intervention.

Terrapower’s reactor would use metal uranium fuel, which is typical of U.S. reactors. X-energy, meanwhile, is working on a gas-cooled reactor design that, if successful, would use tiny pebbles of coated uranium as fuel.

”A big part of this was to demonstrate a diversity of designs,” Peters said.

INL is involved in researching that fuel, known formally as tri-structural isotropic (TRISO) particle fuel. Only specially designed reactors can use pebble fuel. Researchers say the fuel’s coated design allows it to operate in extremely high temperatures.

The announcement is the first of three phases outlined in DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, in which the INL-based National Reactor Innovation Center is helping to test and assess designs.

DOE expects this step to result, within seven years, in a fully functioning advanced reactor that can supply energy to the grid. Peters said both projects are seeking approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the nation’s regulator of commercial nuclear power projects.

“They’ll be power producing machines,” said Peters, adding that “they would be first-of-a-kind demonstrations.”

Peters said the project announcement also marks a step forward on fuel manufacturing, both for particle fuel and metal fuel.

”As we start to build things, that will allow us to build a supply chain,” he said. “... It’s not only big for climate change, but it’s big for national security.”

The announcement this week did not disclose where these reactors will be built.

Peters, who has been INL director since 2015, is moving into a new job as executive vice president for laboratory operations at Battelle Energy Alliance. Battelle is the contractor that runs day-to-day operations at the lab.

Battelle is searching for a new lab director and Peters plans to stay in his current role until it finds one and help with the new director’s transition into the job before moving into his new job at Battelle.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.