More than 25 years after the federal government scrapped plans for a nuclear breeder reactor in Oak Ridge, Tenn., TVA is considering building a new type of nuclear reactor at the abandoned Clinch River site.
The Tennessee Valley Authority announced Wednesday it has signed an agreement to pursue a new reactor design that proponents say is safer, cheaper and can be built in smaller increments than the previous generation of nuclear plants.
TVA has yet to commit to building the new reactor, made by Babcock & Wilcox Co. But agency Vice President Jack Bailey said the federal utility is eager to work toward getting the new design licensed and is studying its Clinch River property as a possible test site.
"TVA is looking forward to working with B&W and other utilities in bringing this new reactor to market," Mr. Bailey said.
Babcock & Wilcox, which operates or manages 17 nuclear facilities in the United States, unveiled its advanced light water reactor known as the "B&W mPower" at a news conference Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The new reactor is designed to be built largely in factories in 125-megawatt modular units to help cut construction costs.
The design allows for nuclear generation to come in scalable units about one-tenth the size of a conventional 1,200-megawatt nuclear plant. The new reactor would be air cooled, requiring less water, and use underground storage pools with a 60-year life, offsetting the need to ship wastes from the plant during its operation.
"This important project, we believe, will be a milestone in the nuclear renaissance," B&W CEO Brandon Bethards said.
But critics of nuclear power question whether small nuclear plants make sense and whether the B&W design can be built in a cost-effective manner.
"It sounds to me like B&W is overhyping this, because there's been no real evidence that small reactors make sense, even though a number of vendors have proposed the idea," said Ed Lyman, a senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "If we are going to have nuclear power, it needs to be heavily fortified and protected and that will tend to push you to have as few sites as possible, not a lot of smaller sites spread all over."
B&W plans to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for design certification of its mPower reactor by 2011 and have the first unit under construction by 2015 and producing power by 2018.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was among five members of Congress who strongly endorsed the new reactor design during Wednesday's product announcement.
"I think this could cause many Americans to rethink nuclear power," said Sen. Alexander, co-chairman of the TVA Congressional Caucus and a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. "Babcock & Wilcox and the TVA have shown us a small reactor that can be built in a factory, shipped to the site on rails and fit together like Lego blocks."
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., said the modular design allows the type of factory production that "Henry Ford already has shown can work."
"There is not a place in the world that is not looking at the United States right now and asking why we are not being a leader in nuclear power," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.
TVA said it will study whether to build another nuclear plant using the B&W design on the 1,300-acre site where the U.S. Department of Energy once wanted to build the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. After nearly a decade and a half of study and development, the breeder reactor ultimately was scrapped in 1983.
Mary Olson, Southeast coordinator for the anti-nuclear group known as the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said TVA shouldn't try to build a new type of nuclear design on the same site where the government failed to gain approval for another new nuclear technology.
"If Southern utilities continue to blindly pursue nuclear power, I'm worried that our power rates will skyrocket above other areas of the country which are pursuing less-costly renewable energy," she said.