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The Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant on the Tennessee River near Soddy-Daisy is shown in this staff file photo.

This story was updated at 10:08 a.m. on Sept. 4 with a statement from Sen. Lamar Alexander.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is poised to receive the first early site permit for America's first small modular reactors (SMRs) proposed to be built in Oak Ridge.

But TVA's new president, Jeff Lyash, isn't rushing to test out the smaller versions of nuclear plants being developed by NuScale Power and other energy companies.

Lyash, who was formerly a licensed senior reactor operator and spent over eight years with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a senior reactor inspector, said TVA has no immediate plans at this time to build any more nuclear plants and probably won't pursue the Small Modular Reactor project without more federal assistance.

"We will only build if there is a need," Lyash told the TVA board last month. "Even if we build, we would be very cautious not to put the price or the risk on the citizens of the Tennessee Valley. We would look to this as part of a national strategy to develop this technology."

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to vote in coming months on whether to grant an early site permit for small modular reactors to be built on the Clinch River on the same site where the Department of Energy once proposed building a breeder reactor, which former President Jimmy Carter ultimately canceled. An environmental assessment of the 935-acre riverfront site in Roane County concluded there are no safety problems with the site for a nuclear plant, which could help power DOE's nearby Oak Ridge facilities. The NRC staff conducted a required hearing on the environmental study last month as the final step in the approval process.

some text TVA CEO Jeff Lyash / Staff photo by Dave Flessner

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a long-time proponent of nuclear power, urged TVA and DOE to develop and build the new reactors in Oak Ridge.

"We need to move ahead to complete the design of and then build small modular reactors and advanced reactors as quickly as possible," Alexander said in a statement today. "If we don't move ahead soon, we will lose a valuable source of safe, low-cost, carbon-free electricity and good paying private-sector jobs. I'll continue to work with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority to help bring a small modular reactor or advanced reactor to East Tennessee."

Although TVA was the first utility to seek a site permit for an SMR, the nation's first small modular reactor may be built at the Idaho National Laboratory where DOE is supporting the siting of a 12-module SMR plant by NuScale Power. Since 2013, under a public-private partnership, DOE has supported the design and licensing of NuScale's SMR, which recently cleared phases 2 and 3 of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) design certification process.

Unlike a traditional nuclear power plant, SMRs could be produced in a factory and transferred to a site by trucks or railroads. They wouldn't have the hyperbolic cooling towers associated with traditional nuclear power plants. But they would still use low-enriched uranium.

NuScale Power, an Oregon-based company that was founded in 2007 for the purpose of developing small modular reactors, is working with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), the U.S. Department of Energy and Idaho National Laboratory on the project.

To encourage new forms of nuclear energy including the small modular reactors, DOE recently established the National Reactor Innovation Center to speed up the licensing and commercialization of advanced reactors. Led by the Idaho National Lab, the new center is designed to provide a platform for private sector technology developers to assess and test their reactor concepts, including smaller reactor designs.

Lyash said he expects the first design of the new SMRs will gain regulatory approval from the NRC in 2020 or early 2021.

"At that point, it is conceivable that you could enter construction and have one under ground in the 2025-to-2030 time frame," Lyash told the TVA board. "But I think that is the early part of the time frame for this project."

Lyash said "TVA has an obligation to help the country review this option and develop it over time," but he is reluctant to commit only TVA resources for the still untested next generation of nuclear power.

"We are looking at SMR designs and working with the Department of Energy to lay out a plan for how we might construct a new plant," Lyash said. "Having said that, this is a decision that we need to take very carefully."

Lyash said nuclear power will play a key role in TVA's generation for decades ahead. TVA's seven existing reactors now supply about 40% of TVA's power — more than any other form of generation for the federal utility.

"Nuclear energy, we think, is clean energy and is vital to reducing our CO2 footprint," Lyash said. "The objective of our nuclear team is pretty clear. I expect all our plants to be top quartile (among the top 25% of plants for performance) by 2022 and by 2025 I'd like to able able to report to you that these plants are top decile (among the top 10% of all plants) in their performance. I think our TVA nuclear fleet as it currently exists can become the best fleet in the country and I think there is true value for TVA and our customers in that."

In the next few years, TVA will have to decide whether to extend the life of Browns Ferry nuclear power plant another 20 years," Lyash said.

"I think it's very likely that we will," he said.

Lyash estimated it will likely cost somewhere around $2 billion to $4 billion to make the equipment upgrades necessary to extend the life of Browns Ferry, although a final price tag will depend upon a detailed assessment of the three-reactor plant.

"That's a bargain," Lyash said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timsesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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