General questions about the project
Is ACU building a nuclear reactor?
The NEXT Lab at ACU, in collaboration with Georgia Tech University, Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin, is working to design and build a university-based advanced molten salt research reactor (MSRR) to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. The four universities have formed NEXTRA – the NEXT Research Alliance – to design, license and commission the MSRR, which ACU will host and own.
Why are Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and UT part of the consortium?
These universities* have research reactors and established engineering programs, including nuclear engineering, as well as doctoral and post-doc researchers.
*Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University and The University of Texas
What is an advanced research reactor?
Research and test reactors are small reactors used for research, testing and training purposes. For example: The National Organization of Test, Research and Training Reactors . Currently, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses 31 reactors like this.
Advanced nuclear reactors are safer and more efficient than the current generation of nuclear reactors. The technology NEXT Lab has been developing for several years will use salt that is heated and melted into a liquid phase (molten salt) and not water as the coolant. Unlike water, molten salt does not become a gas until it reaches over 1400° C, so the reactor core does not have to be built to operate at high pressures. This avoids both the cost and danger associated with a pressurized water reactor.
Where does the NEXT Lab get its funding?
NEXTRA is working under a $30.5 million research agreement sponsored by Natura Resources to design and build a university-based advanced molten salt research reactor.
NEXT Lab has received additional funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.
How soon would the advanced molten salt research reactor be built?
The goal is for the reactor to be operational by the end of 2025.
Where else are there nuclear research reactors in the U.S?
Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not yet licensed an advanced molten salt test reactor, there are 31 nuclear research testing facilities across the U.S. Three are in Texas, including one in Austin at The University of Texas’ Pickle Research Park, built in the 1980s. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has one on campus in the heart of Greater Boston.
Questions about ACU’s role
Why has ACU been selected to lead the consortium?
Abilene Christian has a long pedigree of working with other top research universities in the field of nuclear physics. ACU is leading this consortium because it has the most experience working with molten salt; its consortium partners have experience with research reactors. Together, it’s a natural collaboration of individual experts coming together to reach a common goal.
The university’s Department of Engineering and Physics has nearly four decades of experience in national laboratories such as Brookhaven, Fermi and Los Alamos, where ACU undergraduate students have the rare opportunity to work alongside their professors and other physicists from around the world. Some of the top groundbreaking discoveries in physics in recent years were made possible by important contributions to testing and research by ACU faculty, undergrads and alumni.
How does this project align with ACU’s mission?
ACU’s mission of educating students for Christian service and leadership throughout the world infers responsible stewardship of all kinds, including the environment. The university believes strongly in the value of student engagement and experiential learning to enrich its students’ academic experience. Benefits of molten salt reactors will result in cleaner energy and water, and the development of medical isotopes for treating cancer – world-changing advancements that will further demonstrate ACU’s continuing contributions to the fields of science and technology.
How does building an advanced reactor benefit ACU and its students?
ACU is a respected teaching and research institution, especially in the sciences. Having a molten salt research reactor will provide even greater access for students and faculty to collaborate on leading-edge research.
Questions about the site
Where will the advanced molten salt research reactor be built?
ACU’s new Science Engineering and Research Center is currently under construction and scheduled for completion in 2023. It will include a 6,000-square-foot research bay with a deep shielded trench (25 feet deep and 80 feet long), a 40-ton crane, and specialized ventilation and enhanced electrical power to support a wide variety of research and development needs, including the construction of the MSRR.
What does the site approval process entail?
A construction permit application has been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which also reports to the Environmental Protection Agency. The reactor will also require an operating license from the NRC.
The U.S. Department of Energy has already expressed a strong interest in the project, and sent representatives to campus to visit the NEXT Lab.
Questions about safety and economic impacts
What type of nuclear fuel will be used in an advanced molten salt test reactor?
Low-enriched uranium-235 is the nuclear fuel required, and it is only available through the U.S. Department of Energy. It is not high-enriched uranium used by the military.
Can an advanced molten salt research reactor explode?
Fortunately, a molten salt research reactor is safe and cannot explode. A nuclear explosion cannot occur because the small amount of fuel is not compact enough to allow an uncontrolled chain reaction. A thermal explosion cannot occur because the reactor is designed to shut down on its own as temperature increases (i.e., it has a negative temperature coefficient).
Should I be concerned about harmful radiation from an advanced molten salt research reactor?
It’s impossible for a molten salt research reactor to cause a nuclear explosion and release of harmful radiation. Other research reactors at universities have been safely located for years in urban areas such as Boston (MIT) and Austin (The University of Texas).
Should I be concerned about a release of nuclear material through the air from an advanced molten salt test reactor?
No. A coal-fired electrical plant emits far more radioactive material than a nuclear research reactor.
What is the economic impact of having this local facility?
A molten salt research reactor would be the first of its kind in the nation. It could employ dozens of high-level professionals and staff while attracting related business and research expertise, and even more university students to an already world-class program.