Abilene Christian University (ACU) has applied to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a construction licence for a molten salt research reactor (MSRR), to be built on its campus in Abilene, Texas, as part of the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing (NEXT) laboratory. ACU plans for the MSRR to achieve criticality by December 2025.
The planned Texas reactor would be an up to 1 MWt, graphite-moderated, fluoride salt flowing fluid (fuel dissolved in the salt) research reactor. The MSRR will be used for on-campus nuclear research and training opportunities for faculty, staff and students in advanced nuclear technologies. The reactor will significantly expand the university’s salt reactor research and development infrastructure, supporting US molten salt reactor design, development, deployment and market penetration.
ACU said it currently expects to complete construction of the MSRR at the earliest six months after issuance of the construction permit and latest by 48 months after issuance of the construction permit.
The ACU-led NEXT Research Alliance (NEXTRA) – which also includes the Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas-Austin – is working with a USD30.5 million research agreement sponsored by Natura Resources, with USD21.5 million going to ACU and the remaining USD9 million to the other consortium universities. The NEXTRA partnership was established to design, build and license the first-ever MSRR.
ACU recently contracted Teledyne Brown Engineering (TBE) to perform Front End Engineering Design services for the MSRR. TBE is the prime contractor to ACU, providing preliminary design services (developing designs, sizes, specification and estimated costs) for the reactor.
China Molten Salt Reactor Work
Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) was recently approved to commission an experimental thorium-powered molten-salt reactor. The China reactor is the first molten salt nuclear reactor since the US shutdown a test reactor in 1969.
The TMSR-LF1 will use fuel enriched to under 20% U-235, have a thorium inventory of about 50 kg and conversion ratio of about 0.1. A fertile blanket of lithium-beryllium fluoride (FLiBe) with 99.95% Li-7 will be used, and fuel as UF4.
The China reactor is expected to start on a batch basis with some online refueling and removal of gaseous fission products, but discharging all fuel salt after 5-8 years for reprocessing and separation of fission products and minor actinides for storage. It will proceed to a continuous process of recycling salt, uranium and thorium, with online separation of fission products and minor actinides. The reactor will work up from about 20% thorium fission to about 80%.
If the TMSR-LF1 proves successful, China plans to build a reactor with a capacity of 373 MWt by 2030.
In January 2011, CAS launched a CNY3 billion (USD444 million) R&D programme on liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs), known there as the thorium-breeding molten-salt reactor (Th-MSR or TMSR), and claimed to have the world’s largest national effort on it, hoping to obtain full intellectual property rights on the technology. This is also known as the fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactor (FHR). The TMSR Centre at SINAP at Jiading, Shanghai, is responsible.
Construction of the 2 MWt TMSR-LF1 reactor began in September 2018 and was reportedly completed in August 2021. The prototype was scheduled to be completed in 2024, but work was accelerated.
Molten Salt Nuclear Background
Molten salt and thorium reactors are inherently safer and can have less nuclear waste (aka unused nuclear fuel.) Nuclear fuel is unused because even numbered isotopes are harder to split or react. Fast reactors have neutrons moving at higher speeds (one hundred times faster) needed to cause uranium 238 to react into plutonium.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the United States operated an experimental 7.34 MW (th) MSR from 1965 to 1969, in a trial known as the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE). This demonstrated the feasibility of liquid-fuelled reactors cooled by molten salts.
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