More nuclear power needed in the future to meet carbon reduction goals, TVA CEO says

Staff file photo / Both cooling towers are in operation at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, where the Unit 2 reactor began operation in 2016 as the last new commercial nuclear unit added to America's grid.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, once the nation's most ambitious developer of nuclear power of any U.S. utility, hasn't started building a new nuclear reactor in nearly a half century.

But that may soon change. TVA President Jeff Lyash told a Senate panel studying the future of nuclear power on Thursday that he hopes TVA will bring online new small modular reactors in Oak Ridge within the next 11 years even as the federal utility extends the life of its existing fleet of seven reactors for decades in the future."

"Our schedule is to have a small modular reactor (SMR) perhaps in service at Clinch River (in Oak Ridge) by 2032," Lyash told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Our Clinch River site is the only site in the nation with an NRC-approved early site permit for small modular reactors. This effectively eliminates a number of risks that have stopped or delayed many nuclear projects previously."

Although TVA was not selected last year to receive federal aid to develop one of the first Small Modular Reactor test sites, TVA is still pursuing plans to possibly build several SMRs on the 935-acre abandoned Clinch River Breeder Reactor site in Anderson County. TVA is currently conducting an environmental assessment of the new advanced nuclear technologies, which are designed to be simpler, more flexible and less costly to construct than the current generation of multibillion-dollar nuclear power plants.

The TVA board has yet to authorize the building of more nuclear reactors and the proposed new small modular reactors in Oak Ridge are still dependent upon an assessment of the plant site, SMR technology and TVA's need for the power. But Lyash and other nuclear power leaders voiced support during Thursday's congressional hearing for more nuclear generation to help provide the needed power to meet President Biden's goal to build a "carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035" and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

"Nuclear energy will be critical to speed the process of decarbonization without overtly sacrificing reliability or costs, and TVA is an industry leader in expanding nuclear generation," Lyash said.

Nationwide since 2014, the number of operating commercial nuclear reactors has or soon will decline by more than 10% as utilities shift to natural gas and other sources of power on the grid. But a majority of both Democratic and Republican members of the Senate's energy committee said they hope new and more cost-effective nuclear technologies can be developed in the United States to produce carbon-free electricity at a competitive cost for consumers and to help America maintain its global leadership in nuclear power

"Both Russia and China have made strategic efforts to supplant our nuclear leadership over recent years and we must push back," said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "We cannot afford to let this carbon-free energy resource fade out."

photo Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / The Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant on Tennessee River near Soddy-Daisy has two of the seven nuclear reactors operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA is considering adding new smaller nuclear reactors in Oak Ridge by 2032.


In the 1960s and '70s, TVA launched plans to build 18 nuclear reactors at seven different sites. But ultimately only seven reactors at three sites in Tennessee and Alabama were ever finished, including the last new commercial reactor to be added to America's nuclear fleet in 2016 when the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant was finished.

TVA remains America's third-biggest nuclear utility and last year generated 42% of its power from nuclear power - more than double the U.S. average of 20%.

Anti-nuclear activists insist nuclear power is too costly and dangerous and future energy needs could be met with more renewable energy sources like solar and wind along with better energy conservation. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Sierra Club Nuclear Free Team and Tennessee Environmental Council have all filed objections to TVA pursuing small modular reactors, which has yet to be proven or licensed.

"No matter which design, nuclear power is old technology clad in new clothing to save the nuclear industry," said Sandra Kurtz, a Chattanooga environmental activist who serves as co-president of Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. "Further, nuclear power does not help with climate change as it takes too long to build and is not reliable in increasingly hot temperatures and likely less water availability."

But U.S. Sen. Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and the ranking member of the Senate energy panel, said nuclear power has proven to be a safe and reliable source of power over the past 75 years and "too often the closures of nuclear plants results in carbon emissions going up and electric reliability going down."

Despite cost overruns on the construction of its nuclear plants and more than $10 billion on investments written off for unfinished nuclear units, Lyash said nuclear power is TVA's second cheapest source of electricity over the long run, behind only the hydroelectric power TVA gets from its 29 power-generating dams. Nuclear plants are typically the most expensive to build, but Lyash said with proper maintenance and upgrades, he believes TVA's nuclear plants should be able to run for 100 or more years.


Lyash said TVA wants a balanced portfolio and will continue to add more renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. But he said nuclear power is the most dependable baseload source of energy to supply power when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow.

"We're building a thousand megawatts of solar a year, but nuclear makes that possible," said Lyash, a nuclear engineer who has headed TVA for the past two years after working at several utilities and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "The nuclear industry globally is the safest source of power generation and the U.S. nuclear fleet is the safest fleet in the world."

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the Ooltewah Republican who represents Oak Ridge and serves on the energy and water appropriations subcommittee in the House, is eager for the U.S. as a whole and TVA in particular to pursue new nuclear power generation.

"I'm cautiously optimistic because I think there is an allure for nuclear power now from both progressives and conservatives," he said in a recent interview with the Times Free Press. "The attraction of nuclear power is that it is clean, carbon free and efficient. I hope that the new Energy Secretary will be warm to the idea of nuclear power and recognize the advancements that we have made."

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said more nuclear power generation will be needed to achieve the Biden administration's green energy targets.

"I think there will be some new nuclear plants coming online in the new couple of years that have been financed by the Department of Energy (at plant Vogtle in Georgia)," Granholm said in an interview of PBS last week. "I want people to understand that nuclear is an important baseload power (source). It is 100 percent clean. With the research that is going on now with the smaller modular reactors which have more flexibility, there are some very exciting technical advancements that are being made to make nuclear more affordable."

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