The mission of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory (NRL) is to provide faculty and students from MIT, as well as the national external scientific and engineering communities, with both a state-of-the-art nuclear facility and the infrastructure to enable its use for important research and other societal objectives. Highest priority is placed on operating in a highly professional manner which is safe to the public, to the researchers and employees, and to the environment. The NRL is also committed to education and training in the nuclear sciences and technologies for the MIT community and beyond.
Vision For the Future of the NRL
The main facility of the NRL is the MIT research reactor (MITR), a 6 MW nuclear reactor that first reached criticality in 1958. Remarkably, this reactor remains one of the most important research reactors in the US, partly as a consequence of the foresight of its original leaders, and partly because it has been decades since the US has built any new research reactors. The MITR is unique in the academic sector in its ability to support in-core studies of materials in a radiation environment similar to the light water reactors (LWRs) used for commercial power generation in the US and around the world. As these reactors age, maintaining their ability to operate safely, reliably, and economically beyond their original lifetime is an increasingly important objective, especially given the key role of the LWR fleet in mitigating carbon emissions. An important and related objective is the development of higher-performance fuels for incremental improvement for the current LWR fleet, including the study of more economic and accident-tolerant fuels. The MITR has supported in-core loops contributing to both goals for more than two decades.
More recently, new in-core experimental facilities have been developed and demonstrated to support materials and instrumentation testing for advanced reactor development, such as high-temperature gas reactors and fluoride salt-cooled high-temperature reactors. Unique irradiation facilities with temperatures up to 1400 °C or with fluoride salt are invaluable assets for US advanced reactor research and development programs, including the study of new fuel forms. Another important attribute of the MITR is its ability to provide students with on-campus research experience working in radiation environments, conducting irradiations, and doing post-irradiation examinations. This is an increasingly rare asset in the US and is highly valued by prospective employers in government and industry.
On the basis of these recent successes in the MITR research program, coupled with a new 20-year operating license issued by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2012, there is now an excellent opportunity to upgrade the Laboratory to greatly enhance our research potential. Our vision for the future of the Laboratory is driven by advances in material science that are enabling improved efficiencies, enhanced safety, ease of operational performance, and providing the practical basis for both new reactor concepts as well as older concepts that were previously untenable. Our goal is to significantly upgrade our in-core capabilities and provide much more sophisticated instrumentation for monitoring in-core experiments and for examining materials after irradiation.
But beyond the reactor-based facilities we envision the establishment of a new annex building to house a proton cyclotron to subject materials to much more extreme radiation doses. To understand damage mechanisms at the most fundamental level, we imagine being able to probe these materials in-situ with advanced X-ray and neutron scattering and imaging methods to access nano-structural detail and follow changes during irradiation in real time. If successful, this would be a unique capability for studying damage at the extreme level needed to support advanced nuclear materials for fission and fusion applications. An expert committee was established in late 2014 to help us build this vision and their full report is available here.