TVA joins international group in developing new small modular reactor design

Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / An architect's sketch shown during a Washington, D.C., event Thursday displays what one of the new GE Hitachi BWRX-300 small modular reactors would look like along the Clinch River near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

America's biggest government utility is joining with utilities in Canada and Poland and one of the oldest nuclear plant manufacturers to develop a basic design for their next generation of nuclear power.

The Tennessee Valley Authority signed a historic agreement Thursday with GE Hitachi, Ontario Power Generation in Canada and Sythos Green Energy in Poland to jointly develop a design and building approach for a 300-megawatt boiling water, small modular reactor design. If approved by regulators, TVA plans to install several of the new small reactors along the Clinch River in Oak Ridge and ultimately may build another 20 or more of the smaller reactors across the Tennessee Valley.

The four partners said they will jointly spend $400 million developing the design and ways to build the standardized units, which could also include a new type of steel bricks that TVA plans to test out with Department of Energy funding in Oak Ridge.

(READ MORE: Federal and Tennessee leaders back plans for more nuclear power in state)

"Working together, we are taking intentional steps to advance new nuclear in the U.S. and around the world," TVA President Jeff Lyash said during an announcement of the new partnership in Washington, D.C. "This is a partnership between a great technology company, GE Hitachi and three power companies in the power sector."

Lyash, who began his career in 1981 working as a test engineer at TVA's boiling water reactor at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama, said the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 design is "building on more than 50 years of operating experience and rests on a supply chain that has been maintained."

Ontario Power is looking to build the new GE Hitachi SMR at its Darlington, Ontario, site by 2028, and TVA is planning on adding the first small modular reactor at the Clinch River site by 2033, pending regulatory and board approvals.

Each of the partners in the agreement signed Thursday has agreed to fund a portion of the overall cost of the design and collectively will form a design center working group to ensure the standard design is deployable in multiple jurisdictions.

  photo  Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / An aerial image shown Thursday in Washington, D.C., shows the Clinch River site near Oak Ridge where TVA is planning to building several small modular reactors.

Jay Wileman, president and CEO of GE Hitachi, praised the deal as an important step in adding more nuclear power generation around the globe to replace fossil fuels and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases linked with global warming. The standardized design and smaller reactor size should allow additional units to be built faster and cheaper than the previous generation of nuclear plants, which were often beset with cost overruns and delays, Wileman said.

"Building on our design-to-cost approach, this collaboration will further strengthen the cost competitiveness of the BWRX-300," he said in an announcement of the new partnership.

(READ MORE: Governor wants Tennessee to become nation's leader in developing next generation of nuclear power)

The small modular reactors along the Clinch River in Oak Ridge will be the first new nuclear power plants constructed by TVA since the federal utility completed construction and began power generation at the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Power Pant in Spring City, Tennessee, in 2016. TVA took more than 40 years to build both reactors at Watts Bar, and the cost of construction was more than twice the earlier estimates.

Georgia Power is preparing to soon begin power generation at the first new nuclear reactor built in America in the 21st century. The new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia have ended up costing more than $30 billion, or twice their initial estimates.

Lyash said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the standardized design and factory production of key reactor parts should help limit the costs of the new units.

Cost overruns and changing power demand forced TVA to scrap plans for 10 of the 17 large-scale nuclear reactors it proposed to build in the 1960s and 1970s.

Lyash said TVA has been moving along the highway to build small modular reactors since the TVA board authorized spending $200 million to pursue the small modular reactors last year. But the TVA president said, "We still have off ramps" to scrap the project if it becomes too expensive or impractical.

During Thursday's announcement of the agreement to pursue the small modular reactors, a top Energy Department official for President Joe Biden praised the utilities for adding needed nuclear power generation to America's power portfolio.

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

"We need to double the amount of nuclear capacity, possibly even triple it, by 2050 in order to meet our net-zero carbon goals," Kathryn Huff, the assistant secretary for DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, said during the announcement Thursday. "It's time to deploy, deploy, deploy."

TVA's nuclear power expansion also was welcomed Thursday by Tennessee's congressional delegation.

"This is something I have been waiting to see for a long time," U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said during Thursday's event in Washington. "These small modular reactors represent a tremendous opportunity for us, and I could not be more pleased with this partnership. It's a massive win for America, for Canada and for Poland."

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, called Thursday's announced partnership "truly transformational."

"We are going to get new nuclear technologies done in the United States and lead America back to dominance and prominence in the nuclear sector," Fleischmann said.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said nuclear power represents a potential export industry for America, "and these small modular reactors are a great way to help ensure clean and affordable power."

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.