Among the 6 candidates of the Gen IV nuclear systems in the technical roadmap of Gen IV International Forum (GIF), the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) is primarily dedicated to the cogeneration of electricity and hydrogen, the latter being extracted from water by using thermo-chemical, electro-chemical or hybrid processes. Its high outlet temperature makes it attractive also for the chemical, oil and iron industries. Original target of outlet temperature 1 000°C from VHTR can support the efficient production of hydrogen by thermo-chemical processes. The technical basis for VHTR is the TRISO coated particle fuel, the graphite as the core structure, helium coolant, as well as the dedicated core layout and lower power density to removal decay heat in a natural way. The VHTR has potential for inherent safety, high thermal efficiency, process heat application capability, low operation and maintenance costs, and modular construction.
The VHTR is a next step in the evolutionary development of high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. It is a graphite-moderated, helium-cooled reactor with thermal neutron spectrum. It can supply nuclear heat and electricity over a range of core outlet temperatures between 700 and 950°C, or more than 1 000°C in future. The reactor core type of the VHTR can be a prismatic block core such as the Japanese HTTR, or a pebble-bed core such as the Chinese HTR-10. For electricity generation, a helium gas turbine system can be directly set in the primary coolant loop, which is called a direct cycle or at the lower end of the outlet temperature range, a steam generator can be used with a conventional rankine cycle. For nuclear heat applications such as process heat for refineries, petrochemistry, metallurgy, and hydrogen production, the heat application process is generally coupled with the reactor through an intermediate heat exchanger (IHX), the so-called indirect cycle. The VHTR can produce hydrogen from only heat and water by using thermochemical processes (such as the sulfur-iodine (S-I) process or the hybrid sulfur process), high temperature steam electrolysis (HTSE), or from heat, water, and natural gas by applying the steam reformer technology.
While the original approach for VHTR at the start of the Generation IV program focused on very high outlet temperatures and hydrogen production, current market assessments have indicated that electricity production and industrial processes based on high temperature steam that require modest outlet temperatures (700-850°C) have the greatest potential for application in the next decade and also reduce technical risk associated with higher outlet temperatures. As a result, over the past decade, the focus has moved from higher outlet temperature designs such as GT-MHR and PBMR to lower outlet temperature designs such as HTR-PM in China and the NGNP in the US.
The VHTR has two typical reactor configurations, namely the pebble bed type and the prismatic block type. Although the shape of the fuel element for two configurations are different, the technical basis for both configuration is same, such as the TRISO coated particle fuel in the graphite matrix, full ceramic (graphite) core structure, helium coolant, and low power density, in order to achieve high outlet temperature and the retention of fission production inside the coated particle under normal operation condition and accident condition. The VHTR can support alternative fuel cycles such as U-Pu, Pu, MOX, U-Th.