The Idaho National Laboratory has long-term plans to build a nuclear reactor that would produce hydrogen for use in fuel cells to power motor vehicles.
Hydrogen fuel cells have been widely advocated as an alternative to petroleum to power cars and trucks, and thereby wean the nation from its oil dependence. However, such efforts face a technological obstacle in the production of a sufficient quantity of hydrogen. The U.S. Department of Energy has proposed the Very High Temperature Reactor as one answer to that challenge.
Last month, the DOE announced awards of $8 million to three private companies to do initial engineering studies on the new design.
Construction is scheduled to begin at INL, a DOE-managed facility near Arco, in 2016 and to be completed by 2021.
In addition to producing hydrogen, the reactor is expected to generate commercial quantities of electricity and to recycle radioactive fuel, reducing the amount of nuclear waste compared to that produced by current reactors.
The Very High Temperature Reactor would inaugurate a "fourth generation" of nuclear plants. Nuclear engineers describe prototype plants built in the 1950s and 1960s as the first generation of nuclear reactors, and the commercial reactors built primarily in the 1970s, and still operating, as the second generation. Generation III plants are under construction today, primarily in Asia, and are expected to be operating until about 2030.
Construction of a hydrogen-producing reactor was directed by the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, and is part of the Bush administration's national energy policy, which calls for greater use of nuclear power and hydrogen.
The reactor would operate at up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit—three times as hot as current reactors--and be cooled by helium gas rather than by water. The higher temperature would allow for the production of hydrogen, and the DOE claims that gas cooling is safer than water cooling.
The DOE has estimated the cost of the initial plant to be $2.4 billion.
The first of eight planned experiments to irradiate fuel and test how well it performs is scheduled to get underway in 2007.
In a report issued last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated that "initial results are favorable, but DOE officials consider the (construction) schedule to be challenging, given the amount of R&D work that remains to be conducted." The GAO added that even that challenging pace may be too slow for the power industry, given that other advanced reactors may be available sooner. The other designs would not produce hydrogen, though, so the government would like its proposed design to become the standard.
During a hearing on the project before a congressional subcommittee on Sept. 20, a DOE representative said that the department expects INL to become "the pre-eminent, internationally recognized nuclear energy research, development and demonstration laboratory" over the next 10 years.