TVA seeks site permit for new type of nuclear plant near Oak Ridge

TVA's Bellefonte nuclear plant can be seen from Highway 72.
TVA's Bellefonte nuclear plant can be seen from Highway 72.

The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to file an application in May to designate a site near Oak Ridge for a new type of smaller nuclear plant, although any construction of the proposed small modular reactor is still years away and will require that the new plant design be certified by federal regulators.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said Tuesday the federal utility wants to get an early site permit to build multiple small modular reactors (SMRs) on a 1,364-acre site on the Clinch River near Oak Ridge where the U.S. Department of Energy once began building a breeder reactor.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday that it will conduct two meetings in Oak Ridge next month to discuss how the agency will review the early site permit application for the new nuclear units.

"We're coming to Oak Ridge to inform people near Clinch River how we examine a site to see if it's suitable for a nuclear power plant," said Jennifer Dixon-Herrity, chief of the Environmental Projects Branch in the NRC's Office of New Reactors. "Our process gives the public several opportunities to provide us information as we review an application."

The site TVA has picked for what may be its next new power plant is the same as what the utility and the U.S. Department of Energy used in the 1970s to try to develop the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. After spending more than $1 billion on design and site preparation, the technology was abandoned in 1983 over concerns about cost and nuclear proliferation.

TVA resurrected the Clinch River site for another type of nuclear plant more than five years ago when it began working with Babcock and Wilcox on that company's small modular reactor design known as mPower. B&W unveiled its small reactor design in 2009 but scaled back work on the reactor in 2014 after it was unable to find enough investors interested in the project.

TVA signed a letter of intent with B&W in 2011 to build up to six reactors at the Clinch River site and B&W obtained initial funding from DOE to pursue certification of its mPower design.

But in April 2014 after years of development and attempts to sell their design to interested utilities and investors, B&W announced that " the current development pace will be slowed." The company blamed a lack of investor and customer interest in the design, which has yet to be certified and approved by the NRC.

Despite the scaling back in the B&W design work, Hopson said TVA decided to pursue getting a permit to ready the site "for whatever future SMR design is certified" in case the TVA board decides to pursue that nuclear generation option in the future.

Hopson said the Clinch River site has already been reviewed for a nuclear facility and is close to DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is helping to support early work on the new type of nuclear plant design.

The smaller reactors are designed to be more flexible and can be built underground to be safer than conventional plants, according to backers of the new design.

"Ranging from 50 megawatts to 300 megawatts, these reactors are less than one-third the size of conventional nuclear plants and cost much less to build," said Dan Ervin, a professor of finance at the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University who calls SMRS "one of the best kept secrets in the battle against climate change."

Ervin said small reactors can be built in factories in order to improve quality control and reduce costs, then be shipped by barge, truck or railroad for assembly at a nuclear site.

But critics question the cost and efficiency of smaller reactors, which still require adequate security and staffing but generate less power than existing nuclear plants.

Sandra Kurtz, vice president Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said regulators haven't even approved a small modular reactor design yet so designating a site for such a plant "is getting the cart before the horse."

"Small modular reactors are not the answer that the nuclear industry wishes that they were," said Kurtz, an environmentalist opposed to more nuclear power. "They don't have the economies of scale to justify their costs and they are just as inherently dangerous and use the same technology as other nuclear plants to spread their radiation."

The NRC will hold the meetings to consider an early site permit for a potential new nuclear plant in Oak Ridge at the Pollard Technology Conference Center, 210 Badger Ave., from 2-4 p.m. and from 7-9 p.m on April 12.

The NRC said its staff will describe the overall site review process, which includes safety and environmental assessments, as well as the public's opportunities to participate. The NRC will host open houses an hour before each meeting so members of the public have the opportunity to talk informally with agency staff.

An NRC decision to issue an early site permit means the site is suitable for a nuclear power facility, but TVA would still have to seek a separate license to build and operate a reactor.

The early site permit is valid for 10 to 20 years and can potentially be renewed for an additional 10 to 20 years.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.

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