In DepthNuclear Energy

Proposed DOE test reactor sparks controversy

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Science  06 Jul 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6397, pp. 15
DOI: 10.1126/science.361.6397.15

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Plans for a controversial multibillion-dollar U.S. nuclear research reactor are coming together at lightning speed—much too fast, say some nuclear policy experts. With a push from Congress, the Department of Energy (DOE) has begun designing the Versatile Fast Neutron Source, which would be the first DOE-built reactor since the 1970s. It would generate high-energy neutrons for testing materials and fuels for so-called fast reactors. But U.S. utilities have no plans to deploy such reactors, which some analysts say pose a proliferation risk because they use plutonium, the stuff of atomic bombs. Researchers are divided on whether the reactor, which would likely be built at Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, is badly needed or a boondoggle. In March, Congress gave the project $35 million for this year, although DOE only requested $10 million. The House of Representatives and the Senate have passed separate bills that call for completing the facility by 2025, with the House bill authorizing DOE to spend $2 billion. Some experts speculate that the cost could reach $10 billion and call for an independent study of the need for the reactor before DOE goes any further with the project.