Gov. Lee wants Tennessee to lead in new nuclear energy development

Governor creates task force to promote nuclear energy, allocate new funds to build next-generation nuclear

Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / TVA President Jeff Lyash, left, and Tennessee Gov. BIll Lee are all smiles during a visit in March to the Clinch River site where TVA plans to build four small modular reactors.

In another attempt to boost nuclear power in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he is creating a Nuclear Energy Advisory Council of government and business leaders to help recruit and develop the next generation of nuclear energy.

Lee said the task force will help identify ways to promote the nuclear power industry in Tennessee and decide how to best allocate the $50 million of nuclear power incentives approved this year by the Tennessee General Assembly at the urging of Lee.

More than distributing the incentives, the new task force of nuclear energy experts, advocates and leaders from government, business and utilities should help identify and correct obstacles to building a bigger and safer nuclear energy portfolio, Lee said.

"We want to use that fund to attract companies to our state that will be part of the nuclear industry ecosystem," Lee said Monday during an appearance at a Nuclear Energy Assembly in Washington, D.C. "We also hope this task force can help us identify ways we can strengthen and bolster the infrastructure required to create a leading nuclear power industry in the state."

Lee said he is eager to build on Tennessee's rich history in nuclear energy development by both the public and private sectors.

"Local, state and federal partnerships with both private and public entities are the way that we will help create this environment that is attractive to companies in our state," he said.

Tennessee will be and can be a model for the nation at a time when it is looking at what energy production should look like, the governor said.

Lee, a mechanical engineer who previously headed his own construction and design company, has voiced support for nuclear power in each of the past three State of State addresses and said he wants Tennessee to be a leader in the next generation of atomic power. On Tuesday, he signed an executive order in Knoxville creating the new nuclear task force, although he has yet to name who will serve on the panel.

"There shouldn't be a conversation in America about the future of energy supply that doesn't include nuclear," Lee said Monday. "Energy security and independence, as well as clean, cheap and resilient energy is vital."

The power of the atom was first harnessed in Tennessee as part of the work in Oak Ridge for the Manhattan Project that led to the development of the first atomic bomb and later the peaceful use of the atom with the advent of electricity-producing nuclear reactors.

Lee said he believes nuclear power is "safe, clean and low cost," and he said the next generation of nuclear plants "is a valuable resource not just for Tennessee but for our country."

"I think the history and legacy of nuclear power in Tennessee positions us to be in just the right spot for where nuclear is headed in the future," he said. "Tennesseans are used to innovation, and they are used to understanding why nuclear energy is important for national security."

Mixed legacy

Anti-nuclear activists question TVA's pursuit of the next generation of nuclear power given the utility's mixed record building nuclear plants over the past half century.

In the 1970s, TVA planned the nation's biggest nuclear power program with plans to build 17 commercial reactors by the turn of the century. But only seven of those units were ever finished, and the last unit at the Watts Bar nuclear plant took 43 years to design and build before it began operation. Most of TVA's reactors cost far more than what was originally budgeted.

"Nuclear power has proven repeatedly to be the most expensive way to boil water," Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project for the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "With renewable costs continually coming down and nuclear costs continuing to rise, it's going to be an experiment that is very likely to fail again."

Gunter noted that nearly two decades ago when the industry promoted what then-U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said would be "a nuclear renaissance" with streamlined regulations and new designs, 34 new reactors were proposed. But the only new units built in the past two decades — units 3 and 4 at Plant Vogle in Georgia — have taken longer than expected, and Gunter said they are likely to end up costing nearly $40 billion, or more than twice original projections.

Gunter said small modular reactors lose the economies of scale that the industry long promoted with bigger reactors during the last generation of nuclear power plants.

But TVA President Jeff Lyash, chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute and an advocate for building more nuclear reactors, said he thinks the small modular reactor design planned at Clinch River should be built better, safer and more cost effectively because of its standardized design, factory-built components and smaller size.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's biggest public power utility and the third-biggest nuclear power producer in America, has the only approved site for a small modular reactor in the United States on the Cinch River near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the county's first nuclear power plants were developed. TVA has allocated $200 million to pursue the development of the four GE Hitachi BWRX-300 small modular reactors in Oak Ridge.

TVA also completed one of the last new commercial nuclear reactor added to America's electric grid with the completion of the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor in 2016.

Lee visited TVA's Watts Bar nuclear plant in 2022.

"I could see and understand the full benefit of nuclear power in Tennessee," he said during the visit.

Maria G. Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that "demand for nuclear power defines the current moment, and it is just beginning.

"For years, many people have talked about the importance of nuclear energy as a solution to the climate crisis," Korsnick said during this week's Nuclear Energy Assembly. "But what we are seeing now is unprecedented action across the economy to meet this demand.

"Tennessee is at the forefront of the development of advance nuclear power" with its small modular reactors planned to be built on the Clinch River near Oak Ridge, Krosnick said.

Lee said state officials are excited about the next technology from small modular reactors at that site and the private sector aggregation that is starting to happen in the state.

Lee noted Tennessee is one of two states that now have four original equipment manufacturers of electric vehicles, and the state has already attracted nearly $20 billion of new or announced EV assembly plants, battery manufacturers, recharging businesses and other related industries.

"If we become the leader of new nuclear technology like we are becoming a leader in electric vehicle automotive manufacturing, then that ecosystem will come to our state as well, and that produces lots of opportunities for the people of our state," Lee said.

The governor also said he wants to build the skilled workforce to build, assemble and operate more nuclear plants.

"My strategy is that if we can create the infrastructure, which includes workforce development," he said, "we will be able to supply the workforce needs for the companies that will be coming."

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.