TVA studies new sites for more nuclear reactors

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

Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version to identify Sandy Kurtz, one of the opponents of more nuclear reactors.

The Tennessee Valley Authority was the first utility in the country to obtain an early site permit to build a small modular reactor near the U.S. Department of Energy lab in Oak Ridge.

Although the new advanced and smaller reactors are likely at least a decade away from being built and generating power, TVA is already working with DOE to identify other sites for more nuclear reactors.

TVA, which finished only seven of the 17 reactors it proposed a generation ago during the first round of nuclear power construction, is betting that the next generation of nuclear plants can be built on a smaller scale to be more flexible, safe and cost effective than the previous generation of reactors. In its abstract proposal to DOE, TVA said it has begun planning on building future small modular reactors across its 7-state footprint to help replace its aging fleet of coal power plants.

"This project will screen the TVA service area to help determine suitable sites for future ANR (advanced nuclear reactor) deployment," TVA said in its DOE application. "TVA will work with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) subject matter experts and the Oak Ridge Siting Analysis for power Generation Expansion (OR-SAGE) tool to assist in defining suitable candidate sites for ANR development."

The TVA board in February authorized spending up to $200 million to pursue plans for at least a couple of small modular reactors on the abandoned site of the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Oak Ridge. In August, TVA announced an agreement with the manufacturer of the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 to pursue their small reactor design for the Oak Ridge site.

Although the TVA board and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must still sign off of the new reactors, TVA President Jeff Lyash said he hopes to activate the units within the next decade and, if successful, to pursue similar small modular reactors at other sites in the Tennessee Valley.

"We are taking a disciplined, phased approach," Lyash told TVA directors in August.

But even before the GE-Hitachi design for small modular reactors is approved by NRC regulators, TVA's staff is already working with DOE to identify other sites for such a small modular reactor or other advanced nuclear generation in the future.

Sandy Kurtz, a Chattanooga environmentalist with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League who opposes nuclear power, questions TVA's moves toward adding more nuclear power to its energy portfolio.

"The world is transitioning to renewable energy and nuclear power is not safe, reliable or cost effective," she said.

Although nuclear power doesn't emit most of the greenhouse gases linked with global warming that come from burning coal or natural gas, Kurtz said there are radioactive wastes and dangers from nuclear plants that will be around for centuries.

TVA is already the third biggest U.S. utility in the amount of nuclear power it generates from its existing seven reactors at its Brown Ferry, Sequoyah and Watts Bar nuclear plants. More than 40% of TVA's power is projected to come from nuclear sources during the current fiscal year as a source of power that is available around the clock.

"As part of TVA's ongoing exploration of advanced nuclear technology, we look forward to working with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other partners to help lead the nation toward a decarbonized future," TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said in an email explanation of the DOE study. "We are still in the early stages of mapping out the exact parameters of the effort but it will include applying a systematic approach to examining other potential locations within TVA's region for the possible deployment of future advanced nuclear technology facilities. Current small modular reactors will be included in the evaluation, but we will also be able to examine the potential of other advanced nuclear designs."

TVA was selected as a recipient for one of DOE's Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) grants in the fourth round of the program, DOE spokeswoman Sarah A. Neumann said in an email statement. The nuclear energy vouchers provide advanced nuclear technology innovators with access to DOE's extensive nuclear research capabilities and expertise available across the agency's national laboratory complex, but there is no direct funding to the recipients.

Neumann said the vouchers provide funding to DOE laboratories to help businesses overcome critical technological and commercialization challenges. TVA will be responsible for a minimum 20 percent cost share, which could be an in-kind contribution, Neumann said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow on Twitter at @Dflessner1