The Tennessee Valley Authority scrapped plans a decade ago to pioneer the next generation of nuclear power at its Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama, but TVA isn't giving up on serving its role as a "living laboratory" for another new type of nuclear plant — at least someday.
On Monday, TVA will pitch an Oak Ridge site for a pilot plant using small modular reactors. Although the nuclear industry has yet to gain approval for a small nuclear plant design and TVA has no immediate needs for more power, TVA is continuing to seek an early site permit for small modular reactors to be built on the Clinch River in Anderson County.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which must approve new site and designs for nuclear power plants, has scheduled public hearings Monday afternoon and evening at the Pollard Technology Conference Center Auditorium in Oak Ridge. The NRC will seek public comments on what environmental matters it should consider during its review of the early site permit application, which TVA submitted last May.
"We have a major customer (the U.S. Department of Energy) that is interested in this and we continue to have an interest and role in innovation in the energy field," TVA President Bill Johnson said. "This early site permit will be good for 20 years so we're just planning to be ready should the opportunity arise."
TVA is proposing to locate any new small modular reactors on the site of the abandoned Clinch River Breeder Reactor, which President Carter scrapped nearly 40 years ago over concerns about nuclear proliferation from mixing civilian and military weapons production at a nuclear plant.
A partnership between Babcock and Wilcox and Bechtel Power developed Generation mPower as one of the first designs for small modular reactors, but the companies abandoned the venture last year when utility interest in the design proved insufficient. Small modular reactors allow utilities to scale power generation in smaller increments and could avoid safety and security challenges of larger nuclear plants.
But so far, the NRC has yet to approve any new design.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., has written to President Trump urging the administration to include more money for the Department of Energy to continue to develop and promote small modular reactors.
"Other countries, including China and Russia, are developing SMR (small modular reactor) concepts with the intent to reach international markets first," Newhouse said. "We know foreign nuclear programs are largely backed by their respective governments, and thus U.S. private sector nuclear technology development has a significant competitive disadvantage."
NuScale Power is developing a small modular reactor and has estimated that 12,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs could be created a decade from now from the small modular reactors, which could be manufactured in modules in the United States and shipped to where they would be used for power production.
But anti-nuclear activists are urging TVA to abandon any pursuit of the new nuclear design.
"Small modular reactors are too costly, too slow to bring online, too uncertain and have a high environmental impact," Don Safer, the nuclear committee chair for the Sierra Club in Tennessee, told TVA directors this week.
Garry Morgan, a member of the Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team, questioned why TVA is still pursuing more nuclear plants after scrapping 10 of the 17 it originally planned due to cost overruns and a drop in projected power demand. Last year, TVA agreed to sell its unfinished Bellefonte plant which was once targeted to be the pilot project for the next Westinghouse plant design. Instead, TVA sold Bellefonte for only a fraction of the more than $50 billion spent on the facility because TVA projects it won't need additional power generation for the next two decades.
Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner @timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.