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America's biggest government utility is getting some extra federal help in developing and planning for the possibility of building the next generation of flexible, advanced nuclear reactors.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Tennessee Valley Authority last week signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly evaluate how to develop, build and operate small modular reactors, which TVA is considering building near ORNL in Oak Ridge.

Under the agreement, ORNL and TVA will collaborate on ways to improve the economic feasibility of potentially licensing, building, operating and maintaining one or more advanced nuclear reactors, such as a small modular reactor, at TVA's 935-acre site on the Clinch River.

TVA gained approval in December from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an early site permit in Oak Ridge where DOE planned on building a breeder reactor in the 1970s until then President Jimmy Carter scrapped the project over concerns about nuclear proliferation.

"We are combining our world-leading research capabilities and TVA's operating expertise to accelerate the next generation of cost-effective nuclear power," ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said in a statement announcing the latest agreement. "Nuclear has long been a key component of the U.S. energy portfolio, and growing demand for emission-free electricity requires that we innovate to ensure safe, affordable and efficient nuclear power for generations to come."

TVA has previously signed agreements and entered into partnerships with DOE and companies such as NuScale Power, Lightbridge, Framatome and South Korea's SMART SMR, which are developing small modular reactor designs. The smaller reactors offer the potential of using less fuel, being less costly and having fewer safety concerns than the larger nuclear plants built in the United States over the past half century.

TVA President Jeff Lyash said the federal utility is pursuing the small modular reactor concept as part of its federal research mission and as a potential power source to replace its aging coal fired plants. But Lyash stressed that any new nuclear plant development must be cost effective for the ratepayers in TVA's 7-state service territory.

"This partnership with ORNL supports TVA's mission for innovation and will allow us to better explore potential future nuclear technologies that benefit the 10 million people across seven states and help lead nuclear energy's future in the United States," he said.

But Lyash stressed that any decision on adding more nuclear generation to the fleet will be based upon controlling costs.

"We'll make decisions based upon the cost to our customers, informed by our environmental stewardship mission and our desire to lower our greenhouse emissions intensity," Lyash told the Times Free Press earlier this month.

TVA has not made a decision to build and would first need approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a specific design. The research performed at ORNL through DOE's national programs has enabled multiple utilities to innovate and improve power generation through the development and use of new materials, processes and state-of-the-art technologies.

Zacharia said the partnership will take advantage of ORNL's scientific expertise and its High Flux Isotope Reactor, Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility and Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.

The agreement builds on decades of collaboration between TVA and ORNL, leveraging nuclear capabilities and assets from both organizations. In 2016, for instance, ORNL modeled to predict for TVA the first six months of operations of TVA's Watts Bar Unit 2 nuclear power plant.

ORNL spokesman Jason Ellis said there is no funding commitment associated with the agreement and staff from both TVA and ORNL will take part in the collaboration.

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

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