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West Urbana residents criticize safety, impact of University’s plans to install novel nuclear reactor system

Rachel Gardner / For CU-CitizenAccess

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s proposal for deploying a micro nuclear reactor in west Urbana has sparked concern among local residents, who are worried about how safe it is to have the reactor near their neighborhood.

“This project is really frustrating on several levels,” David Dorman, resident of West Urbana and one of the moderators for the neighborhood association’s listserv, said. “There’s a lot of unknowns because this is a brand new design and the reactor is untested. Anybody who has already made claims about its safety is just simply speculating.”

The residents said they also are concerned about environmental and economic impacts. 

If approved, the new micro modular reactor (known as MMR) would be the first of its kind to be installed and running on a college campus by 2025, according to the University of Illinois.

The proposed location for the facility is near Abbott Power Plant on 1117 S. Oak Street in Champaign, about 0.3 miles, or a few blocks, away from the undergraduate dormitory Nugent Hall in Ikenberry Commons. The University expects to spend around $22 million to revise the facilities near Abbott Power Plant to accommodate the microreactor.

A portion of Urbana where the micro modular reactor is proposed.

Dorman also said that residents on the listserv who are against the proposal are uncertain on how to oppose it effectively to the project leaders. 

“The community has no voice in all of this,” Dorman said. “The University clearly wants to do it, the government wants to fund it, and it’s up to the trustees to make a final decision.”

In an article published by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) from October 2020, University of Illinois Chancellor Robert J. Jones commented on the research and environmental goals of having a new micro modular reactor system on campus. 

“Participating in the Ultra Safe Nuclear proposal for the Advanced Reactor Demonstration opportunity continues a proud Illinois tradition of leadership in responsible, cutting-edge nuclear technologies,” Jones said. “An on-campus MMR will significantly advance our knowledge of new nuclear power technologies and pave the way for a new generation of safe, affordable, carbon-free nuclear power.”

On June 28, the University submitted a letter of intent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to apply for a license to build the microreactor facility. This is the first step in a long process that could take several years to satisfy the environmental and safety requirements of the NRC. 

Scott Burnell, agency spokesperson for the NRC Office of Public Affairs, said the licensing process for the University of Illinois will consist of two major reviews before construction of the facility can begin. The first review will be a safety analysis of the proposed facility and the second will look at potential environmental impacts.

He said the environmental review involves a great deal of public interaction because it gives the NRC the opportunity to ask community members for their input and topics they want covered.

“In the review process, if we find everything to be acceptable and if the application doesn’t have any legal challenges,” Burnell said. “It would then proceed to our politically appointed five-member commission who are in charge of the agency, and they will render a mandatory hearing decision on the applicant of the construction permit.”

There is no set date yet for residents for the comments or hearing.

University of Illinois Professor Emeritus of Geography Bruce Hannon said he believes that even though the facility might be beneficial for research purposes, it needs to be in a more remote location that isn’t home to over 200,000 people.  

“I have suggested several different locations for the facility, but a key one is the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois,” Hannon said. “One of the missions of the Department of Energy (DOE) is to keep the national labs funded. There’s a bunch of them around the country but the closest one to UIUC is Argonne, which is only about 130 miles away. That’s a great location for it as far as I’m concerned.”

Hannon also said the University is pushing to have this facility on campus because the Department of Energy is paying them a lot of money to get a new reactor up and running to revive the nuclear power industry.

“I don’t believe we need to take the chance of being the first ones to see if this reactor is safe and works,” Hannon said. “We don’t have to do that and there’s no mandate saying we have to. The university is acting like an experimental guinea pig and they’re effectively taking a bribe from the DOE to put it here.”

Planned reactor differs from commercial reactor systems

For this project, the Grainger College of Engineering is teaming up with Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), a partner company of the DOE that designs and provides micro modular reactor systems. 

According to Caleb Brooks, associate professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering and one of the project leaders, MMR systems share some similarities with commercial nuclear reactor systems in that they both use uranium as the fuel source and reliably produce safe, clean energy. 

A key difference is that microreactors use helium gas as the coolant while commercial reactors use water.

He said the safety of the technology comes from three primary design features, including a retention of all fission products, negative power feedback with increasing temperatures and passive heat removal. 

In the proposed design, small kernels of Fully Ceramic Micro Encapsulated (FCM) fuel are encased in silicon carbide, which has superior chemical and mechanical properties even under extreme temperatures, Brooks said. The silicon carbide prevents the possibility of radioactive gases produced during the fission process from escaping the fuel particle. 

“The very small power of the reactor, which is 15 megawatts compared to 3,000 megawatts in a conventional reactor,” Brooks said, “…means that the decay heat present in the system after shutdown can be removed by natural heat transport processes to the surrounding structures without the need for any backup cooling systems, like those found in existing commercial nuclear power plants.” 

Model of a micro modular nuclear reactor system. Image Source: USNC

“Failure from these backup cooling systems were to blame for the Three Mile Island and Fukushima fuel melting, and microreactors can cool without intervention from an operator or active cooling system,” Brooks said.  

The safety functions of MMR systems are achieved through a combination of engineered and inherent safety features. 

Engineered safety features are introduced to perform specific functions within the design and reliably maintain plant operation, protection, control of radionuclide release and emergency preparedness. While inherent safety features “result from the selection of materials used and design features of the reactor fuel and core, moderator and coolant,” according to USNC

Brooks said having the microreactor facility on campus will serve as a research, education and training tool with the ability to integrate existing energy generation, while also providing clean energy that is networked with renewable sources. 

The plan is to utilize the energy produced by the reactor and capture it in the form of electricity or steam for the campus.

“This is a substantial research tool that has the potential for creating jobs around the reactor and the development of new technologies and start-up companies,” Brooks said. “I could see Research Park as being a place that would really benefit from having this type of facility so close.”

Image Source: USNC

If the University receives an official approval from the commission to build the facility, the next step, once construction is complete, is submitting another application to the NRC for an operating license. 

This application essentially requests permission to run the facility and will undergo a similar review process as the licensing application. 

As the nation’s regulator for civilian use of radioactive materials, the NRC would be responsible for conducting in-depth evaluations and ensuring that the campus is meeting the requirements for safe operation and security of the facility. 

“For research reactors, we come out on a regular basis, thoroughly examine the activities within the facility and maintain oversight on any potential environmental impacts,” Burnell said. “Our biggest priority is ensuring the safety of the staff operating the facility, the students on campus and the rest of the community.”

Rachel Gardner / For CU-CitizenAccess

Comments (3)

  1. We need innovation on energy. I would hate to see this squashed in a knee jerk manner. Coal is awful and wind and solar have some significant limitations. Let’s at least give this a close look.

  2. Haven’t Illinois taxpayers paid enough bribes to the nuclear industry? Leave their wallets alone, government.

  3. I don’t care how you squash it. Sit on it, stomp on it, kick it in the teeth, jerk a knot on its head. We don’t need no steenkin’ nukes! We have been looking at the utter abject failure of nuclear for 75 years. Enough is enough!

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