TVA joins in an international approach to developing the next generation of nuclear power

TVA, Ontario Power to develop, construct small modular reactors

Staff file photo / The Tennessee Valley Authority building in Chattanooga is shown in 2016.
Staff file photo / The Tennessee Valley Authority building in Chattanooga is shown in 2016.

The head of the Tennessee Valley Authority returned to his former employer in Ontario, Canada this week to help work on a new venture he says is a key to delivering clean and reliable power in the future.

TVA CEO Jeff Lyash isn't leaving his current job as head of America's biggest public power company. But Lyash said he is eager to have TVA work with Ontario Power Group (OPG) to develop and ultimately build a number of small modular reactors designed by General Electric and Hitachi.

"Canada and the U.S. have a rich history of partnership for the greater good," Lyash said during a ceremony Wednesday at the Darlington nuclear facility in Clarington, Ontario. "Today, we have an opportunity to build on that partnership and make nuclear energy an impactful contributor to a carbon-free energy future for all of North America."

OPG is completing a $13 billion refurbishment of its four existing reactors at Darlington and is planning to soon build small modular reactors on the site using the GE Hitachi BWRX design. TVA, which is pursuing the same technology for its next generation of smaller nuclear plants, has a collaborative agreement with OPG to share information regarding the development, licensing and construction of the new 300-megawatt, light-water reactors small modular reactors.

"Reaching net zero will require all the tools in the toolbox – and that includes safe, carbon-free nuclear power," OPG President and CEO Ken Hartwick said in a statement Wednesday. "Working together, OPG and TVA are demonstrating environmental leadership while leveraging our extensive expertise in safely producing the electricity needed in our jurisdictions to advance new nuclear technology and cleanly power the future."

TVA currently holds the only early site permit in the U.S. from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to locate a small modular reactor at the Clinch River Nuclear site near Oak Ridge. In a telephone interview this week, Lyash said he expects TVA to file an application for a construction permit to build a couple of the GE-Hatchi BWRX-300 small modular reactors on the 935-acre site near Oak Ridge by late 2023 or early 2024. If approved by the TVA board and the NRC, construction of the small modular reactors could begin by 2026 and the units could come online by 2031, Lyash said.

  photo  Contributed by the Tennessee Valley Authority / Illustration shows the path for TVA to add a small modular reactor by 2031 and become carbon free by 20150.

Anti-nuclear activists are skeptical of TVA's proposed timeline and approach, noting that the previous generation of TVA nuclear plants took far longer and cost several times more than what was originally forecast. Among the 17 nuclear reactors TVA initially proposed in the 1960s to build across its 7-state service territory, only seven were ever finished. The last reactor to be completed, the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar nuclear plant, took 42 years to construct and just finishing the last phase of the plant cost twice as much as what was forecast when the work began.

"All of the optimistic projections being made by TVA, Ontario Power, GE-Hitachi and the Nuclear Energy Institute are not borne out by the history with nuclear power, which tends to almost always be more expensive and take much longer to build than the original projections," said Don Safer, a member of the Tennessee Environmental Council who has followed TVA's nuclear program since the 1970s. "If this is a project that is trying to affect climate change, why is TVA not deploying solar,wind or storage that could be less expensive, safer and could be completed much quicker and without all of the radioactive wastes that stem from nuclear power."

Lyash said the smaller size of the BWRX-300 reactors will allow more of the components to be produced in factories, not on site, and the passive safety design and size of the units will ensure they are safer and less expensive than the previous generation of bigger nuclear plants.

But the NRC has yet to approve the design of the BWRX-300 as yet and Lyash said it is still too early to give price estimates for what each of the 300-megawatt reactors will cost to design and build.

Lyash said the initial units, as prototype reactors, may have a higher cost, but he expects TVA to benefit from OPG's experience from the Darlington reactors and to use the experience at Oak Ridge to help more cost effectively build similar small modular reactors at other sites across the Tennessee Valley in the future.

"So far, we have not seen anything that is an insurmountable impediment and we continue to be encouraged by the prospects of this new design," Lyash said.

OPG recently announced a contract with ES Fox to proceed with early site work for its small modular reactors at Darlington, including water, electrical power, information technology and roads.

TVA's board in February authorized the utility to spend up to $200 million to study and pursue the small modular reactor project at Oak Ridge, but the board must still vote to proceed with the project before any construction begins.

Safer suggested that Lyash, a former nuclear plant senior operator who serves as vice chair of the Nuclear Energy Institute, has a conflict in helping to lead a trade association that supports nuclear power while leading a public utility that considers a variety of power options for the future.

But Lyash said TVA is pursuing a diverse power portfolio to ensure its power is reliable, affordable and clean. TVA, which already gets about 42% of its energy from nuclear power and over 10% of its power from its hydroelectric dams, has set a goal of being carbon free by 2050. Earlier this summer, TVA began soliciting proposals for up to 5,000 megawatts of carbon-free generation from potential power suppliers, including proposals for solar, wind, battery storage or hydro pumped storage.

"We are adding more solar and other renewables, but to maintain reliable and affordable power at all times and to meet what we believe will be an increased power load with the electrification of the U.S. economy, we believe advanced nuclear technologies will play a critical role," Lyash said.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340. Follow on Twiter at @Dflessner1.

  photo  Staff file photo / Tennessee Valley Authority President Jeffrey Lyash speaks with the Times Free Press from the TVA Chattanooga Office Complex in Chattanooga in 2019.


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