Anti-nuclear group challenges TVA plans for Oak Ridge reactor

TVA is planning to build two 180-megawatt small modular reactors on the Clinch River in Oak Ridge. (Rendering by Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy)
TVA is planning to build two 180-megawatt small modular reactors on the Clinch River in Oak Ridge. (Rendering by Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy)

An environmental group critical of nuclear power is challenging plans to potentially locate small modular reactors in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League said today that it is filing a legal challenge to the proposal by the Tennessee Valley Authority to site small modular reactors at the site of the abandoned Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Oak Ridge.

Lou Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, filed a 13-page petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commisson challenging TVA's plans.

"TVA is trying to justify this project as a solution to global warming and to benefit energy security. What it does is undermine both," Zeller said today.

Zeller said no small modular reactor designs have yet been approved by regulators and the experimental source of power "is fraught with reduced safety margins" since small modular reactors do not have to have active backup safety systems for cooling the reactor as do today's conventional reactors.

Zeller also claims underground siting of small modular reactors increases risk during flooding.

TVA has not yet decided to build any small modular reactors, but it is working with the U.S. Department of Energy to explore the option and has filed an early site permit with the NRC for Oak Ridge to locate the new reactors, if they are ultimately built.

"What we have done is similar to if you are going to go out and buy a house and you first go to the bank to pre-qualify for a loan," TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said. "That loan isn't issued yet because you don't have a house picked out or any agreement to buy at this point. But you have an idea what you can afford and what you might buy to get some of that early work out of the way. That is what we are doing with the early site permit."

TVA does not need the extra power from the small modular reactors in the near future, but the utility may need the extra power to replace aging coal and conventional nuclear power plants as they are phased out in the future.

The proposed plant site is near DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and on a riverfront parcel previously approved for a breeder reactor in the 1970s. The Clinch River Breeder Reactor was ultimately canceled by then President Jimmy Carter who said the technology could lead to more nuclear proliferation in other countries.

The NRC is conducting a public scoping process to determine what issues should be considered in the siting of any small modular reactor by TVA. Zeller claims TVA's application should have also included the option of not building any of the new reactors, although that option will still come in subsequent hearings and reviews of any plant license request.

The option of not approving a project, the no-action alternative, is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, Zeller said.

"The applicant [TVA] has not fulfilled its NEPA obligation to provide a detailed, accurate statement, with particularity to the no-build option," Zeller said in his petition.

TVA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff now have until July 7 to reply to the petition, which was filed Monday.