Environmental groups challenge TVA plans for small nuclear reactors in Oak Ridge

The Tennessee Valley Authority wants to use the site of a nuclear reactor design abandoned in the 1970s to develop a new technology of small modular reactors.

But environmental critics of the Oak Ridge project say the new small modular reactors are still untested, unsafe and unneeded.

Sara Barczak, the high risk energy choices program director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, likened TVA's proposal to locate the new small reactor designs in Oak Ridge to the Clinch River Breeder Reactor that was planned for the same site in the 1970s. Ultimately, then President Jimmy Carter killed the project because he feared the liquid metal fast breeder reactor might lead to more nuclear proliferation around the globe, and he complained about the escalating price for the innovative technologyy.

"The Clinch River site has a very long, troubled and expensive history because of a failed nuclear experiment, which was one of the most expensive plants for never generating any power," Barczak said. "We are very concerned that history is once again repeating itself and we are concerned that billions of dollars could be spent on a technology that is unproven, untested and significantly more expensive than other types of power technology that are available to TVA."

In 1971, the Atomic Energy Commission estimated the Clinch River project would cost about $400 million. But ultimately, the project was projected to cost $8 billion to complete, and it was finally scrapped in 1983. Barczak said she fears the proposed Small Modular Reactor concept, which has yet to get an approved design from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will prove too costly and not be adequately tested before one is built.

The NRC is reviewing TVA's application for an early site permit to determine whether the riverfront site in Oak Ridge is suitable for two or more reactors generating up to 800 megawatts of nuclear power. TVA is seeking the permit in case it decides to go ahead with more nuclear generation in the future, but TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said no decision has been made by the federal utility to build such reactors.

TVA officials argue that part of their federal mission is to develop and test new technologies and to work with other federal agencies to promote innovation and economic development.

TVA supplied the power for the development of the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge during World War II, and TVA's Muscle Shoals, Ala., reservation helped develop new fertilizers for farming during much of TVA's history.

Although TVA has not decided to move ahead, environmental groups said last week they are challenging the site application by highlighting the uncertainties about the new design.

"We think nuclear power is only going to succeed if it is based on safe science principles.There are no shortcuts," said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Power and the Union of Concerned Scientists have joined the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in petitioning the NRC to deny the early site permit for the small reactors in Oak Ridge. The environmental groups argue TVA has failed to justify its bid to reduce the size of the emergency planning zone around the proposed reactors from the standard 10-mile zone to the site boundary of about two miles.

"TVA expects the public near the Clinch River site to accept on faith that the fantasy nuclear reactors it wants to build there will be so safe that no evacuation plan is needed, even in the event of a core meltdown or a spent fuel pool fire," Lyman said. "TVA has apparently failed to learn a major lesson of the Fukushima disaster: Public safety during a nuclear emergency depends critically on being prepared for the unthinkable."

M.V. Ramana, a professor and chair of the Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said TVA's site application for the small reactors is "more like an advertisement brochure than an examination of the environmental impacts of constructing these reactors.

"There is a long history of experimentation with small nuclear reactors, and the evidence so far suggests that small reactors cost too much for the little electricity they produce," Ramana said.

TVA doesn't project a need for the additional power the small modular reactors might generate, but the design is more scalable and controllable than building major baseload nuclear power plants and the smaller units could be designed for more passive safety systems.

The NRC is expected to consider TVA's early site permit over the next couple of years, NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.