University of Illinois seeks licence to construct USNC micro-reactor

1 July 2021

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) on 28 June submitted a Letter of Intent to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to apply for a licence to construct a research and test reactor facility at its campus. The submission of the Letter of Intent is the first step in NRC’s two-step process to licence a new reactor, including a process of public hearings on the proposed project for full transparency.

The University’s Grainger College of Engineering (and its Department of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering), in collaboration with Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), is spearheading the new reactor deployment. The new research and test reactor facility will offer UIUC staff and students a diverse set of opportunities for research: instrumentation and control (I&C), multi-physics validation, reactor prototype testing, micro-grid operations, cybersecurity, hydrogen production for transportation and energy storage, and other energy intensive, high-value products.

“This impressive project takes advantage of the diversity of expertise and spirit of innovation across all relevant areas of science and technology at the University of Illinois,” said Susan Martinis, vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “We know that Illinois ingenuity will play an important role in advancing the technology that makes microreactors safe, versatile, and cost effective.”

The university plans to partially re-power its fossil fuel Abbott power station with the Ultra Safe Nuclear Micro Modular Reactor (MMRTM) Energy System, providing a zero-carbon demonstration of district heat and power to campus buildings as part of its green campus initiative. The project team aims to demonstrate how microreactor systems integrate with existing fossil fuel infrastructure to accelerate the decarbonisation of existing power-generation facilities.

“Nuclear energy and microreactor technology are poised to play an important role in building a cleaner and more sustainable future,” said Rashid Bashir, dean of The Grainger College of Engineering. “This proposed reactor continues our proud tradition of leading academia in the pursuit of safe, transformative nuclear technologies, and enables us to innovatively train and develop the next generation workforce to lead the nation’s new economy.”

In addition to supporting the university’s clean energy goals, the microreactor will serve as a valuable workforce training tool for a new generation of nuclear scientists, engineers, and operators. Universities have nearly 80 years of pioneering nuclear reactor technology and safely operating nuclear reactors. UIUC’s TRIGA reactor operated for 38 years with a site licence in the heart of campus before being decommissioned and the site returned to greenfield status, said Rizwan Uddin, Department Head of Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering. “Next generation energy research facilities are critical to training the emerging clean-energy focused workforce.”

The submission of the Letter of Intent to the NRC is the first formal step toward pursuing a construction permit, and ultimately obtaining an operating licence. The proposed reactor, designed by US-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, is a generation IV High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactor (HTGR). The Ultra Safe Nuclear MMR features the industry’s most mature high-temperature gas cooled technology and a design that is inherently safe.

“The University of Illinois provides a unique environment for innovation in research and education combined with the opportunity of commercial-level implementation on a scale that is ideal to our micro reactor product,” said Francesco Venneri, USNC’s CEO. “We expect the licensing process to be exceptionally comprehensive and open to public review and comment, exactly as it should be.”

The MMR Energy System is a zero-carbon power plant, integrating one or several standardized micro reactors with a heat storage unit and a non-nuclear adjacent plant for power conversion and utilisation. It can produce 10-100 MW electrical power and/or process heat depending on configuration. The standard micro reactor unit is a small high-temperature gas-cooled reactor generating between 15-30MW (thermal) at a temperature of 650oC and expected for first-of-a-kind deployment in Canada at the Chalk River site of the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

The MMR uses USNC’s proprietary meltdown-proof FCMTM TRISO fuel (co-developed with Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory). The heat is transferred from multiple MMRs to a molten salt energy storage unit that decouples the nuclear system from the power conversion system, greatly simplifying operations and allowing flexible use of the energy generated. No water is required for cooling. The MMR Energy System can be used to generate power, complement renewables, provide process heat to industrial applications or for high-efficiency hydrogen production, providing clean, reliable energy for any use, anywhere.

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