The Department of Energy has awarded $1 million to the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) Industry Alliance to continue business and economic analysis for using high temperature gas reactor (HTGR) technologies in the process heat and steam industry.

The NGNP Alliance is an interesting group of corporations, including Areva, Dow, and Entergy, an owner of nuclear power plants. The group includes both potential suppliers and potential users of HTGRs. The DOE grant will be matched by the group.

HTGR technology has been around for a long time. A quick look at its history may illustrate some of the difficulties in the development of nuclear technology.

Back in the 1960s, Los Alamos was looking at peaceful applications of nuclear energy, as well as designing weapons. One of those peaceful programs was the Ultra High Temperature Reactor Experiment (UHTREX). There is shockingly little on the Web about UHTREX, but not surprising. At the time, I was a technical writer in the Reactor (K) Division, another story for another day. One of my jobs was to assemble the quarterly reports, which then piled up in the division office. I tried to encourage the people there to move them out, but they didn’t. As far as I know, those reports were never filed. Some of the early quarterly reports are available at Science.gov.

I did manage to find one document (Thank you, FAS!) that contains a lot of information about UHTREX, which was an operating reactor. Fuel slugs were arranged in a radial design, and used slugs were ejected into a center channel and removed, so that refueling could be done without shutting the reactor down. The slugs, short cylinders with a hole down the center, were composed of a graphite matrix containing engineered spheres of highly enriched uranium carbide. The coolant was helium.

I would like to find other reports on UHTREX’s successful operation, but haven’t been able to. The rug was pulled out from under many reactor projects in the late 1960s, due to changes in the Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor to the Energy Research and Development Administration and today’s DOE. Funding collapsed in the late 1960s, for reasons I don’t know, ending UHTREX and the Rover nuclear rocket program at Los Alamos.

The reactor was decommissioned in the late 1980s and the vessel sent to burial.

The Peach Bottom 1 reactor was the first commercial HTGR, operating from 1966 to 1974.The Fort St. Vrain nuclear power plant in Platteville, Colorado, began operation in 1976 and was closed in 1989 and decommissioned. Some history from past and present workers at the plant and the Boulder Daily Camera.

HTGRs also lend themselves to a pebble bed design, in which the graphite fuel elements are spherical and are agitated by the helium gas flow. South Africa tried to develop a pebble-bed HTGR after one was operated in Germany and eventually gave up on the project after technical difficulties emerged. China has displayed some interest in the technology.

Pebble bed reactor

The NGNP Alliance’s choice of reactor is Areva’s modular prismatic reactor. There seems to be less on the Web about it than about UHTREX. Here are a quick overview and a slide show from Areva. This is what is referred to as a Generation IV reactor, which means it is fairly far in the future. The first Generation III reactors are just being built.

The DOE grant is for “business and economic analysis,” apparently in a continuing project. It’s not for research and development, which presumably Areva is doing.

The US government was the big player in developing reactor technology through the late sixties. The reactors that are on line today, and the reprocessing technologies now in use, come out of that period with small modifications. Then there was that big change, which I recall but wasn’t paying attention to the politics. Perhaps it was, like many of the pressures I saw later, a matter of industrial interests working Congress with the argument that they were better able to develop and commercialize the technology. If so, they have been doing a less than sterling job. And they still, as we see in this latest news, need government support to do it. Would a national lab do a better job?

UHTREX was built and operated in less than a decade. Much less regulatory oversight was required at that time, and it was a research reactor, not a commercial one. But that kind of can-do approach seems lacking in today’s commercial nuclear projects. Economic and business studies of copying machines before Xerox made them commercial showed little interest, as did studies of the uses of computers. A few dozen across the country, maybe. So what will $2 million in business and economic studies do to help develop HTGR technology? Might not a study of the problems at Peach Bottom, Fort St. Vrain, and in the German reactors be more helpful? And might it be wise to have such a study done in an organization with no monetary interest in a particular design?


Graphics: UHTREX and pebble bed reactor, from here.

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