Idaho National Laboratory has reactivated a facility that, researchers hope, will be a major player in advancing the safety of American nuclear technology.
Tuesday afternoon the Transient Reactor Test Facility came to life, pulsing for a few seconds and subjecting a small capsule of light water reactor fuel to radiation and heat, the first experiment there in more than two decades.
“Restoring this capability in the U.S. keeps our nation in a leading role to develop advanced nuclear fuels and reactor technologies,” INL Director Mark Peters said in a statement. “Because of that, INL’s TREAT facility will once again enable systems that serve the U.S. economy, environment and national security.”
The U.S. hasn’t had an active transient test reactor since 1994, when the one at the U.S. Department of Energy site west of Idaho Falls, known by its acronym TREAT, was shut down due to a lack of use. Talk of reviving it started in 2010 and it came back online in November. A Trump administration report earlier this year listed its revival along with other actions aimed at expanding the nuclear energy sector as one of the highlights of his first year in office.
“Such testing can help to improve safety and performance of the current and future nuclear reactor fleet,” the report said.
The facility is used to expose nuclear fuel and material specimens to extreme conditions to see how they react, said Nicolas Woolstenhulme, a design engineer at INL who was part of the team that restarted testing at TREAT and designed the first experiment. The hope, he said, is that the research will help develop cleaner and safer nuclear power technology.
He compared nuclear safety technology to automobile safety, which has improved over the years due to frequent crash testing. Nuclear technology now, he said, is largely the same as it was several decades ago due to the lack of the kind of testing TREAT does.
“You can imagine a Chevy Impala from the 1970s and how it might fare with today’s standards of safety,” he said.
For Woolstenhulme, who is a third-generation lab employee, Tuesday’s test offered a link to the past. His grandfather worked at the now-decommissioned Power Burst Facility.
“It was one of the historic facilities that did precisely the same thing TREAT did,” he said.
The test was the first in a series, Woolstenhulme said. The plan is to test four more capsules over the next few months, exposing them to progressively more extreme conditions. After that, he said, the facility will be considered commissioned for fuel safety research. He said there is “a long line of good research and experiments” expected after that.
“We haven’t been doing this research for a long time in this country, so there’s actually a big backlog of data gaps we need to fill,” he said. “So we’ve got our work cut out for us for the next several years.”