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April 5, 2019

US nuclear research programme potentially 40% over budget

The US Department of Energy estimates the nuclear versatile test reactor (VTR) research programme could cost between £3.9bn and $6bn, potentially 40% more than the original $3.5bn estimate.

By Jack Unwin

The US Department of Energy estimates the nuclear versatile test reactor (VTR) research programme could cost between £3.9bn and $6bn, potentially 40% more than the original $3.5bn estimate given by Idaho National Laboratory head Kemal Pasamehmetoglu. The new estimate comes via a freedom of information request placed by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The VTR was originally announced by Energy Secretary Rick Perry in February 2018 as part of the Trump administration’s policy to revitalise the US nuclear industry. The facility is expected to be built by 2025 and would be the first nuclear test reactor built by the Department of Energy (DOE) for decades.

It would be the first of a number of fast reactors, which breed their own fuel and increase the amount of energy produced from uranium compared with light water reactors.

Research for the VTR will be led by Idaho National Laboratory, with General Electric (GE) and Hitachi forming a partnership called GE Hitachi Nuclear to provide support for design and safety of the plant.

UCS also estimate that the VTR would cost between $550-$850m per year for the next seven years compared to the $740m in the 2019 budget for the DOE’s entire nuclear technology development, $65m of which was allocated to VTR.

UCS senior scientist Ed Lyman said: “UCS received documents from a Freedom of Information Act request that contained the DOE’s current “rough order-of-magnitude” cost estimate for the Versatile Test Reactor project of US $3.9-6.0 billion.

“These values assume different cost escalation factors over a roughly seven-year period. I estimate the corresponding unescalated cost to be as much as $5 billion. The reactor isn’t really “over budget” yet, because there was no official cost estimate prior to this.

“UCS has many concerns about this project. First, we don’t generally support the development of fast reactors because of their proliferation and nuclear terrorism risks, so we question the rationale for building this facility.  Second, we believe this reactor will not be a reliable test reactor because the design is experimental. Third, there are much cheaper options that the DOE has not adequately explored to provide a source of fast neutrons to reactor developers.

“Given the likelihood that any DOE first-of-a-kind nuclear construction project will experience major delays and cost overruns, the project may well end up costing $10 billion or more. That money could be far better spent on working to improve the safety and security of light-water reactors.”

The DOE has also been approached for comment.

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