Can it explode? Will there be radiation? ACU reactor officials say no

When you want to build a nuclear reactor close to people’s backyards, there may be questions.

Abilene Christian University took on a room full of residents and others with questions about university-based, advanced molten salt research reactor currently under construction.

At a town hall at Hunter Welcome Center, Dr. Rusty Towell, Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing (NEXT) Lab director and professor of engineering and physics, and others fielded questions and gave an extensive overview of the project, which ACU regularly has touted as potentially world-changing.

The ‘core’ question: What is it?

First things first.

The NEXT Lab at ACU, in collaboration with Georgia Tech University, Texas A&M University andtThe University of Texas at Austin, is working to design and build a university-based advanced molten salt research reactor, licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and supported by the US Department of Energy.

Rusty Towell, director of Abilene Christian University's NEXT Lab, gestures toward a slide at a Q&A session held by the university about the project Tuesday.

The four universities formed NEXTRA – the NEXT Research Alliance – to design, license and commission the reactor, which ACU will host and own.

A research and test reactor is a small reactor used for research, testing and training purposes.

Currently, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses 31.

An advanced reactor is designed to be safer and more efficient than current-generation reactors. The technology developed by NEXT lab will use salt that is heated and melted into a liquid phase, not water.

Unlike water, molten salt does not become a gas until it reaches more than 1400 degrees Celsius, so the reactor core does not have to be built to operate at high pressures.

That avoids both the cost and danger associated with a pressurized water reactor.

Among potential uses of the technology are cleaner energy and water, including water desalination applications, and development of medical isotopes for treating cancer.

A healthy glow?

Two primary questions asked Tuesday were:

  • Can an advanced molten salt research reactor explode?
  • Should those living in the area be concerned about harmful radiation?

The answer to both questions is no.

It’s impossible for a molten salt research reactor to cause a nuclear explosion and release harmful radiation.

The small amount of fuel used is not compact enough to allow an uncontrolled chain reaction, while the reactor is designed to shut down on its own as temperature increases.

It’s similarly impossible for a molten salt research reactor to cause a nuclear explosion and release harmful radiation.

A coal-fired electrical plant actually releases more radioactive material than a nuclear research reactor.

Once a design is approved, approval is needed to turn the reactor on.

“We are probably the most regulated activity that you can imagine, in terms of careful scrutiny,” Towell said.

A concept art of the Gayle and Max Dillard Science Engineering Research Center.

Things could leak in theory, but salt becomes solid as it cools, and “that’s why we’re building live tet systems,” to minimize that possibility, he said.

“If it leaks, we know how to handle that,” he said. “It doesn’t leave our second boundary.”

And all of this is behind concrete, he said, which is “the only thing you need to protect yourself from radiation.”

In short, the material is easily contained, the reactor can be fixed, and the salt can be “put back in there” and reused, he said.

What’s the status?

NEXTRA is working under a $30.5 million research agreement sponsored by Natura Resources to design and build the molten salt reactor. NEXT Lab has received additional funding from the US Department of Energy.

A look at how a molten salt reactor works.

A construction permit application has been submitted to the NRC, which also reports to the Environmental Protection Agency. The reactor requires an operating license from the NRC.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never licensed a molten salt cooled reactor, even though (one) was built in the 1960s,” Towell said.

The NRC never licensed the reactor because the entity didn’t exist then, he said.

“They didn’t have the opportunity to say no,” Towell said.

And while the reactor performed, it didn’t fit well with the then-prevalent driver for nuclear power plants in the 1960s – the military.

“What’s a good application fo the military may not be the best for us,” Towell said. “What’s good for a submarine under the water is not necessarily the ideal solution for our neighborhoods and cities.”

What is, though, may be a safer, cleaner molten salt reactor, to eventually be built in the now-under-construction Gayle and Max Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center.

Other questions by the public

Among other questions asked Tuesday:

A cross section showing the research bay of the Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center at Abilene Christian University.

  • Why now? The political will is strong for such technology, including the US’ own desire to compete with China and other markets.
  • What radioactive materials will be used in the core? Low-enriched uranium-235, only available through the US Department of Energy. It is not the same as high-enriched uranium used by the military.
  • What happens when it gets turned on? The lights shouldn’t go out, or even dim, on ACU hill. The temperature of the salt will be raised so it could be used in liquid form to be used as a coolant.
  • What pressure will the reactor operate under? Low, about the same as a garden hose.
  • What’s the purpose? Getting a license, then doing research on performance and efficiency, along with the minimizing of corrosion, etc. Towell said the university knows it can build a reactor that can last five or 10 years, but it would like to make one that can last 50 -80. A more efficient reactor can produce more electricity for the same cost, and while the ACU reactor is being built with no commercial applications in mind, Natura is extremely interested in showing such a reactor can be licensed and deployed. While ACU’s reactor won’t be hooked to the electrical grid, it could in theory produce medical isotopes that could be harvested.
  • What else is different? Estimated waste produced will be very small, about a quart, and it only needs to be stored for 100 years, not 100,000, before you could sprinkle it in a yard safely.
  • Will large-scale reactors of this type use up all our salt? Salt will be recirculated over and over through the core. It isn’t being burned, like coal, natural gas or oil.
  • How cheap would energy costs potentially be? Cheaper than natural gas, the cheapest electricity one can produce.
  • That’s also good for another potential use, desalination of water, with previous efforts stymied by the high cost of electricity and the amount of power needed.

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