China, Russia, India and France have talked to TerraPower.
TerraPower design employs a high-temperature, liquid metal core cooling technology suited to a breeder reactor with "fast" neutron activity, rather than today's predominant reactors whose water cooling systems slow neutrons. TerraPower wants to partner with countries that are actively pursuing fast, breeder reactor technology.
TerraPower's design and other once-through reactor designs use a "breed" and "burn" process. The company's CEO, John Gilleland, originally likened his reactor to a smoldering cigarette or cigar, with a slow-moving fission phase moving wave-like through the fuel core, generating neutrons to maintain a gradually advancing chain reaction while it consumes most of the fuel.
TerraPower's scheme has changed as the research program has evolved. In the new version, the wave does not move, but remains stationary, and the fuel material is shuffled in and out of the breed and burn zones within the reactor, TerraPower officials say. Under this new approach, the reactor can still be sealed and run without being reopened for 40 to 60 years, Reynolds says.
The greatest engineering challenge is durability of the metal alloy used to encase the fuel. The pilot plant will enable TerraPower to assess the impact of radiation damage on the specialized stainless steel alloy, to document its survival capabilities.
Peter Lyons, who heads the Energy Department's nuclear energy program, told a House Appropriations subcommittee in March that DOE is seeking funding for two modular reactor programs in fiscal 2012: $67 million for a licensing demonstration project and $30 million for a review of advanced modular reactor concepts.
The demonstration reactor TerraPower hopes to build is outside DOE's budget. Reynolds said the cost is "less than $7 billion and more than $1 billion." It would take a government entity -- perhaps in China -- to do a project of that scope. Such support inevitably comes with strings attached, typically a sharing of critical technology
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