The Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas has said that its Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing (NEXT) Lab has submitted a construction permit application to build a molten salt research reactor (MSRR). The application to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the first of its kind for a university research reactor, ACU said. It is also the first application for a research reactor in 30 years. The application includes a Preliminary Safety Analysis Report (PSAR) and an Environmental Review.

If NRC accepts the application, a formal technical review can begin and the reactor could be completed by 2025. ACU said it expects to complete construction of the MSRR six months after the construction permit is issued at the earliest and at the latest after 48 months.

"The submission of this application is another step closer toward reaching the goals of NEXT Lab – to provide global solutions to the world's need for energy, water, and medical isotopes," ACU President Dr Phil Schubert said. The NEXT research alliance (NEXTRA), set up specifically to design, build and license the first-ever MSRR, comprises ACU, Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin. The project is supported by a $35 million research agreement sponsored by Natura Resources, $21.5 million of which goes to ACU.

In March 2020, ACU submitted a Letter of Intent to NRC to apply for a construction permit for a non-power molten salt reactor, followed in July 2020 by submission of a Regulatory Engagement Plan for the project. The first of the eight application steps in 2021 followed to start of construction of the Science and Engineering Research Centre. on the south border of the main ACU campus. The 28,000-square-foot centre is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2023 and will include dedicated spaces to support construction of the advanced research reactor and other research efforts in chemistry, physics and engineering. "The forward progress on this project presents incredible opportunities for ACU, NEXTRA and the investors of Natura Resources," said Natura Resources founder Doug Robinson.

The reactor design is for a graphite-moderated, fluoride salt flowing fluid (fuel dissolved in the salt) research reactor of up to 1 MWt. The MSRR will be used for on-campus nuclear research and training opportunities for faculty, staff and students in advanced nuclear technologies. ACU in July 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.

Image: Undergraduate students research alongside faculty physicists, engineers and chemists on the molten salt test loop at Abilene Christian University's NEXT Lab (courtesy of Jeremy Enlow / Steel Shutter Photography)