If you build a test facility, developers will come

Newswise – In the baseball classic “Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) builds a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, obeying a ghostly whisper that if he builds it, “it” will come.

Borrowing from the same script, Reactor National Innovation Center (NRIC) is now designing and constructing two field nuclear test facilities known as test beds at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

NRIC launched this effort with the understanding that if test facilities were built, nuclear reactor developers would be ready to use them.

Building the future with the past

While nuclear technology is key to a carbon-free energy future, one of the challenges of developing advanced reactors has been the ability to test new technologies. The enormous cost of facilities to safely test nuclear innovations has hindered innovation.

INL has two facilities that have been remodeled and reconfigured to meet the demands of new technologies. These facilities, known as DOME and LOTUS, are the first advanced reactor test beds. “The original facilities, which were built in the 1960s, are now being replaced by modifications,” said Aaron Balsmeier, NRIC's chief engineer. And these changes are intended to help companies lower testing costs and speed up testing schedules.

“There's no other place that allows you to test and then learn from those tests,” said technical program manager Troy Burnett. “This testing allows us to reduce costs and time to produce a safe product that will meet our future energy needs.”

DOME (Demonstration and Operation of Microreactor Experiments) test bed

Located in INL's Materials and Fuels Complex, the NRIC-DOME is an iconic 80-foot-tall concrete and steel structure that housed the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II until 1994. The DOME will host fuel experiments that will generate up to 20 megawatts of power, which is still to come. Small enough to fit in the bed of an 18 wheeler. Fuel-filled experiments will be installed in the DOME dome through a large loading area that can accept trailer containers.

The test bed is also supplied with electrical, communication, instrument air and other utilities to connect to the experimental systems. “Early in the design process, NRIC contacted several advanced reactor developers to gather requirements and develop a flexible testbed design to host a variety of experiments,” said Brad Tomer, NRIC's acting director and chief operating officer.

Historically, it has been expensive for private companies to build their own test facilities to test advanced reactors. Most of the cost is in concrete and steel, which have very long useful lives, even if the pilot plant only takes a few months to address the integration risks.

NRIC has now completed the final design of the DOME and it is expected to be ready for testing in 2026.

LOTUS (Operations and Testing Laboratory in the USA) test bed

The LOTUS testbed is another facility that once hosted an experimental reactor, making it ideal for testing experimental concepts before scaling up to larger commercial systems.

LOTUS consists of a cylindrical reactor cell area, a control room, and safety, auxiliary, and support systems. The operational data produced by the fuel experiments will inform the modeling and analysis of future reactors.

This device is approved to work with high security materials, which will allow experiments in LOTUS to be about 1/10e The size of a commercial design would use low-enriched uranium, explains Philip Schoonover, NRIC's senior technical program manager.

The first user of LOTUS is expected to be the Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment, a partnership between TerraPower and Southern Company funded in part by the US Department of Energy's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

NRIC has completed the conceptual design of LOTUS and it is expected to be operational by the end of 2027.