TVA to pursue next generation of nuclear power near Oak Ridge

Utility allocates $200 million to seek a license for small modular reactors on Clinch River

Contributed rendering by the Tennessee Valley Authority / The proposed small modular reactor is shown on the Clinch River site in Roane County. TVA is pursuing building multiple small modular reactors on the site near Oak Ridge where the Clinch River Breeder Reactors was first proposed in the 1970s

Nearly a half-century after the Tennessee Valley Authority began building its last new nuclear power plant, the federal utility is moving ahead with plans to build the next generation of nuclear power in a smaller version than the seven reactors the agency now operates.

TVA directors Thursday authorized spending up to $200 million to design, develop and license a small modular reactor to be built on the Clinch River in Roane County near Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

"This is a significant, positive step forward, but it's important to note that this is not a commitment to build," TVA President Jeff Lyash said Thursday during a TVA board meeting in Bowling Green, Kentucky. "We are taking a disciplined, phased approach."

TVA was the first U.S. utility to obtain an early site permit for a small modular reactor in 2019 and has decided to pursue the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 model with reactors about a fourth of the size of TVA's existing nuclear fleet. The GE Hitachi model is one of more than two dozen small reactor designs under development, and 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 May in its strategic plan.

"We view light-water small modular reactors - like the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 - as a more mature technology that could be ready for commercial deployment within a decade," Lyash said.

TVA could begin getting power from the new small modular reactors as soon as 2032 to help replace the nearby aging coal plants TVA is planning to shut down at Kingston and Bull Run in East Tennessee over the next decade.

Small modular reactors are designed to be built safer and cheaper than the larger reactors now in operation by limiting the size and standardizing the production process for each unit.

Nuclear challenges

But before any plant construction may begin, the new reactor design must still be licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the TVA board will still have to vote to build the next generation of nuclear power.

Anti-nuclear activists warn that nuclear power has been too expensive and poses too big of a risk of a radioactive leak, especially with no permanent storage facility yet built to handle nuclear waste.

"The money used for research for small modular reactors is diverting money away from moving toward renewables like solar and wind which are the real solutions for climate change," said Sandra Kurtz, a Chattanooga environmental activist who serves on the boards of Tennessee Environmental Council and Tennessee Clean Water Network and sits on the TVA Green Power Steering Committee.

Lyash said TVA is planning to build or purchase 10,000 megawatts of solar power by 2035 and is studying energy storage options such as battery storage and building additional hydro storage facilities like the Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Facility near Chattanooga.

"We continue to pursue renewables and other energy options, but for us to realize our aspirational goal of being totally carbon-free, we need to pursue more nuclear energy," Lyash said in an interview with the Times Free Press.

Lyash said he expects the electrification of the economy, including the switch from gasoline to electric-powered vehicles, will maintain or even boost overall electricity demand even with more energy-efficient machines and appliances.

But Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said TVA "is pursuing a pipe dream" with yet-to-be-licensed small modular technology, noting that previous nuclear power investments have proven to be far more costly than originally forecast.

TVA was once the nation's most ambitious developer of nuclear power in America, and the federal utility still holds the record for completing the last new commercial nuclear reactor in the nation when it started up a second unit at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in 2016.

But TVA, which ultimately finished building seven of the 17 reactors it planned to build a half-century ago, hasn't started building a new nuclear plant since the 1970s. Finishing the Watts Bar reactors cost more than three times the original estimates. Georgia Power Co. is building the only new nuclear plants in America at Plant Vogtle, but the new AP1000 design used for the two Georgia reactors is costing over twice as much and taking years longer to build than originally forecast.

"We simply can't afford more nuclear power," Smith said.

Political support

Tennessee political leaders are backing TVA's plans for the small modular reactors, which Lyash said he hopes to eventually locate at a number of sites across the Tennessee Valley.

The permitted site for the first small modular reactor is near Oak Ridge, where the power of the atom was first harnessed. The 935-acre site on the Clinch River was originally developed in the 1970s for a breeder reactor, but President Carter canceled the project over nuclear proliferation concerns.

In his State of the State address last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee endorsed TVA's plans for small modular reactors.

"We are working directly with TVA to formalize a long-term strategy so the Clinch River site can be part of powering America," Lee said. "If we're going to have a real conversation about energy in America, it needs to be safe, cheap to produce, and reliable. I believe that conversation starts right here in Tennessee at the Clinch River site."

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee backs nuclear energy and TVA's plans for next generation of reactors)

Both of Tennessee's U.S. Senators and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who represents the site where the new reactors would be built, also endorsed TVA's decision Thursday to move ahead on the nuclear power plans.

"The development of designs like the small modular reactor will help propel the advancement of nuclear energy and allow TVA to utilize more environmentally friendly energy sources," U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, said in a statement released Thursday.

U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, who served as commissioner for Economic and Community Development under former Gov. Bill Haslam, issued a statement saying the investments in the next generation of nuclear power should help the economy of East Tennessee.

"TVA's new nuclear investments are a strong testament to Tennessee's cutting-edge leadership and technology," the statement said. "I'm confident these developments will push America to the forefront of nuclear power innovation and maintain our position as a leader in the industry."

Fleischmann also issued a statement, saying he welcomes TVA's exploration of advanced reactor technology on the Clinch River site and other potential locations in the future.

"I am confident that TVA will be able to build on the progress made with their early site permit and that they will lead the way in clean energy generation for the nation," the statement said.

Partnership support

TVA was the first utility to obtain an early site permit for a small modular reactor nearly three years ago, but TVA's Clinch River project was not selected by the U.S. Department of Energy for initial grants to projects that will receive $160 million in federal funding under the new Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

In 2020, the department awarded grants to build two advanced nuclear reactors that could be operational within seven years under proposals from X-energy, a Rockville, Maryland-based company that is proposing a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, and TerrePower, a Washington State corporation that is planning to build a sodium-cooled fast reactor.

Lyash said TVA is eager to work with partners in both government and the private sector in developing and building the new small modular reactors as part of TVA's national mission to be an innovative power leader. But Lyash said the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 uses similar technology and vendors to TVA's existing nuclear plants, which should help TVA in developing and operating such reactors.

"At TVA, we are uniquely positioned to lead in this effort," Lyash said in a video message to TVA employees. "TVA has extensive experience building and operating nuclear facilities. And we operate them well."

TVA, which is the nation's third largest nuclear power utility and gets over 40% of its electricity from its seven nuclear reactors, was recently recognized by the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations for its nuclear fleet performance being among the top 25% of all utilities with nuclear plants. The upgrade in the industry ranking in the most recent rankings represents a turnaround in TVA's nuclear power program, which had suffered from employee complaints, outages and construction delays in the past.

"We literally went from worst to first - this is a total turnaround," TVA Director A.D. Frazier said during Thursday's board meeting.

But TVA's support for nuclear power through the Nuclear Energy Institute was challenged during this week's TVA board meetings in Bowling Green.

Don Safer, a board member for the Tennessee Environmental Council and chairman of the Nuclear Matters Committee for the Sierra Club's Tennessee chapter, said Lyash has "a major conflict of interest" by serving as vice chairman of the institute, a trade association that supports nuclear power.

"The fact that CEO Lyash holds a leadership position with an association that promotes a specific generation technology disadvantages all other current and potential energy generation technologies in determining TVA's energy mix," Safer told the TVA board during a public listening session on Wednesday.

TVA Communications Vice President Buddy Eller said TVA does not give any financial support for the institute's lobbying activities, but the institute provides valuable information about the performance of nuclear plants across the country.

"I am pro-nuclear, but I am also pro-solar, pro-wind and pro-battery storage," Lyash said in a phone interview responding to Safer's concerns. "I'm in support of any reliable power supply that helps meet our goals of low-cost, reliable and clean energy."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340