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US DOE announces environmental impact review of future versatile test reactor

The U.S. Department of Energy is preparing to launch an environmental impact statement, or EIS, to examine building a nuclear reactor that can serve as a testbed for future fuels and materials for advanced nuclear technologies in the United States.

In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the DOE published on Aug. 5 a notice of intent in the Federal Register announcing that the agency will develop an EIS to study the impacts of building what's known as a versatile test reactor.

In a press release, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the project's testing capability is essential for America to not only modernize its nuclear energy fleet but also develop transformational nuclear energy technologies that produce zero greenhouse gas emissions, reduce nuclear waste and enhance security.

Further, the "lack of a domestic reactor with versatile fast-neutron-spectrum testing capability is a significant national strategic risk affecting the ability" of the DOE to fulfill its various missions, Perry said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal said the DOE needs to develop this capability on an accelerated schedule to avoid further delay in America's ability to develop and deploy advanced nuclear energy technologies. If the test reactor is not made available to U.S. nuclear developers as soon as possible, she warned, the growing dominance of China and Russia in the international nuclear energy market will grow, further damaging the U.S. nuclear energy industry.

The DOE is considering building the versatile test reactor at either the agency's Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho, where the first of NuScale Power LLC's factory-built 60-MW small modular reactors, or SMRs, is slated to be located, or at the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee.

Fluor Corp. subsidiary NuScale recently completed the second and third review phases of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's design certification application for the SMR. The NRC certified that the SMR design is about six weeks ahead of schedule and is on track to complete its full report by September 2020. The first of the SMR units is set to begin operations in the mid-2020s. NuScale has also signed initial agreements to deploy the SMR technology in Canada, Jordan and Romania.

In addition, the Idaho National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site are under consideration for the fabrication of the fuel needed to run the versatile test reactor. The public comment period on the proposed machine is open through Sept. 4 on what should be included in the draft EIS, which will be completed in the next several months.