Scientists at MIT have put forward a novel idea for building a demonstration nuclear reactor—one that could limit licensing challenges with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) while still providing useful testing opportunities for advanced reactors.  The MIT facility already operates a six megawatt light water reactor.  The proposal is to build a second molten salt reactor, but one that is subcritical and which would use neutrons from the existing reactor to power the fission process, avoiding the need for a new NRC license.  If it takes off, it could only cost an estimated $15 million to build before fueling.

A lack of demonstration reactors is a critical barrier to the progress of advanced reactors, as testing is key to validating new ideas in this generally risk-averse industry.  As identified by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance,  “[a] critical obstacle to financing innovative nuclear power technologies is that there is no clear pathway for a first pilot-scale demonstration.”  The idea proposed here, even if imperfect, presents a new approach to testing new reactor designs.

There is certainly lots of attention behind advanced reactors.  Last week a Senate committee passed 18 to 3 the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, a bill to modernize the NRC’s licensing framework for advanced reactors.  And interest in the industry continues to grow.  This past week, nuclear enrichment giant Urenco discussed that it is partnering with engineers at Amec Foster Wheeler to develop a U-Battery, which would generate approximately 10 MW of power or heat (1% of a modern reactor) in a compact battery form.  But new ideas require testing—and hopefully MIT’s plan can help the industry get past a critical hurdle to future growth.