The biggest public power utilities in the United States and Canada are joining to help explore how to develop and build smaller nuclear reactors they say will be needed to meet the growing demand for carbon-free electricity.
The Tennessee Valley Authority and Ontario Power Generation announced the partnership Tuesday to help develop small modular reactors to replace some of the coal- and natural gas-fired power generators the utilities plan to completely phase out in the future to achieve a carbon-free power portfolio.
The agreement allows TVA and the Ontario, Canada, utility to coordinate their explorations into the design, licensing, construction and operation of the GE Hitachi BWRX design for standardized reactors.
"As leaders in our industry and nations, OPG and TVA share a common goal to decarbonize energy generation while maintaining reliability and low-cost service, which our customers expect and deserve," Jeff Lyash, TVA president and CEO, said in an announcement during a Nuclear Energy Institute conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. "Advanced nuclear technology will not only help us meet our net-zero carbon targets but will also advance North American energy security."
Lyash, who was formerly CEO of Ontario Power before joining TVA in 2019, said the collaboration should help reduce the development and startup costs for each utility while helping to ensure the standardization that could help lower the production and installation expenses for much of the factory-built equipment in the new and smaller reactor design.
Ken Hartwick, the Ontario Power CEO who succeeded Lyash as head of Canada's biggest public power utility, called nuclear power "a crucial part of our net-zero [carbon] future" and said OPG is already committed to building a GE Hitachi BWRX small modular reactor at its Darlington nuclear facility in Clarington, Ontario.
"Working together, OPG and TVA will find efficiencies and share best practices for the long-term supply of the economical, carbon-free, reliable electricity our jurisdictions need," he said.
The Darlington site is the only location in Canada licensed for new nuclear with a completed and accepted environmental assessment. TVA currently holds the only Nuclear Regulatory Commission Early Site permit in the U.S. for small modular reactor deployment at its Clinch River site near Oak Ridge where the Department of Energy once planned to build a breeder reactor in the 1970s.
TVA directors in February authorized spending up to $200 million to design, develop and license a small modular reactor to be built on the 935-acre Clinch River site in Roane County.
Developing the design
TVA was the first U.S. utility to obtain an early site permit for a small modular reactor in 2019 when the NRC authorized TVA to build a number of small modular reactors in Oak Ridge. TVA is conducting an environmental impact study on proposals to pursue the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 design with reactors that will each be only about a fourth of the size of TVA's existing nuclear units.
Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to approve the GE Hitachi design, Lyash said it is the most promising among the more than a dozen designs for different types of small modular reactors. Lyash said the 300-megawatt size and light-water design of the GE Hitachi plan "fits the scale, load growth and decarbonization plans" set by TVA in 2020 in its strategic plan.
Lyash said the development of the first small modular reactor is key to setting the pace for what he expects may ultimately be a fleet of such smaller reactors across the Tennessee Valley to not only replace aging coal plants that will be shut down by 2035 but also to expand generation to meet higher demand for electric cars and the electrification of many factories, homes and commercial buildings now reliant on natural gas or other fossil fuels.
"I view the U.S. electric system as perhaps doubling between now and 2050 and we need to do that in a clean and reliable manner," Lyash told reporters during a Nuclear Energy Institute forum Tuesday. "SMRs [small modular reactors] are on a scale that fits well with our planned coal retirements and our projected load growth. They are of a size that can be integrated into our transmission system. They are at a scale that the supply chain and industry can support and they are at a capital cost that a company can digest and build a series of them. The point of building the first SMR is to demonstrate the effectiveness, the cost competitiveness and the impact on carbon so we can position ourselves to build a fleet if that is what our customers and country desires."
But anti-nuclear activists on Tuesday questioned TVA's continued pursuit of nuclear power, which they claim is neither safe nor cost effective.
"The overriding concern is that TVA is still desperately trying to get new nuclear on board when they could be deploying far more renewable energy like wind and solar, energy efficiency and storage and get such sources of energy online much quicker and for far less money than pursuing a pie-in-the-sky nuclear project that they have already decided to spend $200 million on without getting a single watt of electricity from," said Don Safer, an environmental activist and leader in the Tennessee Environmental Council. "Renewables now are the cheapest source of power and with TVA's dams and pumped storage facility TVA already has tremendous energy storage potential."
Sandra Kurtz, a Chattanooga environmental leader who is co-president of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said she has no problems with TVA working with Ontario Power. But she said the utilities "are barking up the wrong tree" for future energy supplies.
"Both Jeff Lyash and Ken Hartwick are part of the Nuclear Energy Institute which promotes nuclear power and I think they have both swallowed the Kool-Aid in thinking that nuclear power is the answer," she said. "It is simply too expensive and it is certainly not safe with all the radiation it produces."
But in a statement Tuesday, Ontario's Ministry of Energy, Todd Smith, applauded the international partnership between the two countries, which have previously worked together to share hydroelectric facilities along the St.Lawrence Seaway.
"The world is watching Ontario as we advance our work to fully unleash our nuclear advantage," Smith said. "I congratulate OPG and TVA - two great industry leaders - for working together to deploy SMRs and showcase and apply Canada's nuclear expertise that will deliver economic, health and environmental benefits for all of us to enjoy."
Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, also voiced support for the joint effort to bring more small modular reactors to the market.
"The changing climate is a global crisis that requires global solutions," she said. "The partnership between the Tennessee Valley Authority and Ontario Power Generation to develop and deploy advanced nuclear technology is exactly the kind of innovative collaboration that is needed to quickly bring the next generation of nuclear carbon-free generation to market."
Despite cost overruns on most of the previous generations of nuclear plants built in both countries, utility officials said they expect small modular reactors can be built more cost effectively than the current generation of larger nuclear reactors by standardizing equipment and building more of the plant in factories, not on site.
Under the agreement announced Tuesday, there will be no exchange of funding between TVA and OPG, but Lyash and Hardwick said the collaboration agreement should help reduce the financial risk that comes from the development of innovative technology, as well as future deployment costs.
"TVA has the most recent experience completing a new nuclear plant in North America at Watts Bar and that knowledge is invaluable to us as we work toward the new facility at Darlington," Hartwick said. "Likewise, because we are a little further along in our construction timing, TVA will gain the advantage of our experience before they start work at Clinch River."