Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sign for Oak Ridge National Laboratory is seen inside the conference center/visitor center/cafeteria building on Monday, June 10, 2019 in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Oak Ridge was created in World War II, in part, because of the power of the Tennessee Valley Authority to supply the bomb-making facilities needed to produce the world's first atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project.

Now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that arose from the bomb-making role of the former "secret city" is relying upon TVA to help the Department of Energy meet ambitious carbon reduction goals for the federal agency.

"Oak Ridge exists because of TVA power," ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said Thursday during a forum with TVA at the Tennessee Valley Corridor summit Thursday "The Oak Ridge National Laboratory represents about 31% of the greenhouse emissions of the Department of Energy. The solution to that problem lies directly with our partnership with TVA."

As President Biden tries to transition America's power grid to a carbon-free power source in the next decade and a half, Zacharia said developing a new and smaller type of nuclear power plant near Oak Ridge on the Clinch River will likely be key for ORNL to gain access to carbon-free electric power from TVA.

"A small modular reactor at the Clinch River site is a great opportunity to reduce those greenhouse gases, bring new technology and revive the next generation of the nuclear fleet," Zacharia said.

TVA has cut its carbon emissions by 63% since 2005 and plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030 and 80% by 2035. TVA plans to phase out the last of the 59 coal plants it once operated by 2035, but to replace natural gas plants and achieve a carbon-free generation mix with no burning of fossil fuels will likely require more nuclear power and other new technologies, according to TVA President Jeff Lyash.

TVA has obtained an early site permit for several small modular reactors on the 935-acre parcel TVA once planned to build a breeder reactor on in the 1970s. That technology was shut down by former President Jimmy Carter, but the Clinch River site could help test small modular reactors being developed to offer more flexible, scalable and cost-efficient nuclear power compared to the large commercial reactors now in operation. Smal modular reactors could replace TVA's gas-fired generation over time.

some text
The Tennessee Valley Authority building in downtown Chattanooga is shown in 2016. / Staff file photo

Lyash said the federal utility has yet to decide whether to proceed with developing a small modular reactor and has yet to even determine which reactor design it may pursue if it does decide to build at Clinch River. But Lyash said bringing such new technologies to the market is part of TVA's federal mission and he is eager to work with DOE on a potential test site.

"We're facing a future that has a whole new set of challenges and we have an opportunity here to be engaged with our partners together in finding solutions," Lyash said during Thursday's forum in Knoxville. "This region of the country is set up to take a prime place in this regard."

TVA and DOE, which operates the nation's largest energy and science lab nearby at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, are sharing the expense of exploring new designs for small modular reactors at the Clinch River site.

"Energy and environment are the compelling challenges that face humanity," Zacharia said.

TVA and ORNL, along with the University of Tennessee, announced Thursday that they will jointly invest $9 million to bring a Techstars accelerator to the Oak Ridge-Knoxville corridor. The accelerator will nurture and capitalize 10 startup companies a year for each of the next three years. Techstars operates global accelerators around the globe and its graduates from the program are now valued at $209 billion.

UT President Randy Boyd said East Tennessee has the key anchor players in TVA, ORNL and UT to attract entrepreneurs and grow new businesses in emerging energy, data, materials and artificial intelligence.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.