Federal regulators approve early site permit for small TVA reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

File staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster / The Tennessee Valley Authority building (TVA) in downtown Chattanooga

Federal regulators have approved the nation's first early site permit for a small modular reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which submitted its request three years ago, is expected to obtain a site permit in the next few days to potentially construct and operate a new, smaller reactor capable of generating 800 megawatts on the site of the abandoned Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Oak Ridge.

By a 3-1 vote, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted this week to issue the 20-year site permit for the 935-acre site as an acceptable location for TVA to potentially construct and operate small modular reactors.

The NRC has yet to approve any of the proposed new small nuclear reactor designs and TVA has no immediate need for additional power generation. But TVA and the U.S. Department of Energy, which operates a nearby research lab and nuclear weapons production facility, are sharing the expense of exploring a potential new nuclear plant in Oak Ridge.

"The early site permit is a significant step in the potential development of small modular reactor technology," reads a Tuesday statement from Dan Stout, director of nuclear technology innovation at TVA. "Although we have no plans to build at this time, this permit will give TVA flexible options to prepare for future energy needs."

Small modular reactors are a next-generation nuclear technology with potential for improved safety and increased flexibility. The new units are less than a third the size of a conventional reactor and potentially could be built in a factory or more standardized method to reduce construction times and costs.

"[Small modular reactors) are more attractive where load growth is slow, and they provide a more affordable option than the higher up-front capital costs associated with larger nuclear facilities," Stout said.

In the 1970s, TVA and DOE previously pursued building the Clinch River Breeder Reactor on the same site in Oak Ridge. But 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 technology.

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.

Anti-nuclear groups have warned of similar cost overruns for other types of new nuclear designs, including the small modular reactor.

Former TVA Chairman S. David Freeman, a Chattanooga native who worked as an engineer and attorney for TVA early in his career, said support for nuclear power remain strong around Oak Ridge where the Atoms for Peace program was developed after World War II.

"Nuclear power in East Tennessee is like oil in Houston," Freeman said, noting that U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Maryville, Tennessee, has been the strongest proponent of nuclear power in the U.S. Senate. "There's a lot of emotional support for it, but it's turned out to be too expensive to use and it has failed financially."

While TVA generates 40% of its electricity from nuclear power, most U.S. utilities have abandoned building new nuclear plants and Germany, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland are phasing out their nuclear power generation.

"TVA is kind of like the mother watching the parade wondering why everyone else is out of step with her son," said Freeman, a consultant for Friends of the Earth.

TVA applied for an early site permit to build new small modular reactors in 2016, and the NRC began formally reviewing the 8,000-page application in January 2017. Although three environmental groups sought to intervene in the case against the site permit, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board terminated the contested portion of the case in July 2018.

The NRC said it spent approximately 40,000 hours, and contracted for another 6,000 hours of outside technical expert help, in reviewing TVA's site application of the Oak Ridge property.

NuScale Power has developed the world's first small modular reactor design, which has recently completed the fourth phase of review of the design certification application from the NRC last week.

TVA has not selected a type of small modular reactor it might pursue at Oak Ridge, if the utility decides to try to build one of the new units. Another NRC application is required to build and operate any new small modular reactor and TVA officials said they are looking to continue to partner with the Department of Energy on any new design.

"The decision to build will be based on energy needs and economic factors," TVA Nuclear Chief Tim Rausch said in a statement. "We want to make the best decision for the people of the Valley."

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