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Staff file photo / Both cooling towers are in operation at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in 2016.

SPRING CITY, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee came to America's newest nuclear reactor here Thursday and pledged support for plans by the Tennessee Valley Authority to possibly help create even more nuclear power with the next generation of small modular reactors.

After touring the twin-reactor Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant, Lee praised TVA for providing what Lee said is "reliable, clean and low-cost power" that is helping the state recruit new industry and jobs to Tennessee.

"Certainly, energy production is foundational to the growth and economy of our country and clean energy production is important to the future of America and that's what we have right here at this Watts Bar facility," Lee told reporters while standing inside the plant's training facility for nuclear operators. "TVA is a solid, reliable provider of energy, and we're the beneficiaries of an energy supply that is predictable in spite of the weather, and that's not true for every state in the country."

TVA, the nation's biggest public power utility and the third biggest nuclear power producer in America, "is very attractive to the private sector and one of the reasons that we are a state that is attracting people from around the globe," Lee said.

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Gov. Lee backs nuclear energy, TVA plans

TVA generated 42% of its electricity last year from the seven reactors it operates in Tennessee and Alabama, including the two 1,150-megawatt reactors in the Chattanooga area that supply power for about 1.3 million homes. The federal utility also is the first in the nation to obtain an early site permit from federal regulators to build small modular reactors at the Oak Ridge site of the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor, which TVA scrapped more than four decades ago.

The new smaller reactors, which have yet to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, offer the potential of being built on a smaller, more cost-effective scale than the current generation of nuclear reactors. TVA is working with the U.S. Department of Energy and nuclear plant manufacturers on testing the new technology in Oak Ridge and ultimately at other sites across the TVA region to help replace coal and natural gas plants to decarbonize its generation mix.

Although anti-nuclear groups raise concerns about potential radioactive leaks and waste from nuclear power plants and persistent cost overruns on new nuclear plants, Lee called the atomic technology clean and pledged his support for efforts to expand nuclear power generation with next-generation plants.

"Nuclear energy is so important not only because it is an important part of TVA's power generation but also because of the value that clean energy via nuclear energy can have for sustainability in this country," Lee said. "From the state's perspective, anything that we can do to support this predictable, low-cost and clean energy production is going to be important for Tennessee, particularly from an economic development standpoint."

TVA's nuclear plants combined with its 29 hydroelectric dams and 14 solar power farms help generate more than 60% of TVA electricity from carbon-free sources. TVA has set a goal of generating 80% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2035 when it closes the last of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated. But TVA President Jeff Lyash said to become carbon-free, as President Joe Biden wants the electric industry to be by 2035, will require more nuclear and carbon capture technology to make up for natural gas generators that still supply much of TVA's electricity.

Lee's support for the work at Watts Bar comes as the commercial nuclear plant prepares to take on a bigger role in making a key component for America's nuclear arsenal at the request of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. Since 2003, TVA has been making tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen needed to turn an atomic bomb into a far more explosive hydrogen bomb.

In a teleconference Wednesday with federal regulators, TVA officials outlined a schedule to boost tritium output at the nuclear power plant by nearly 40% by 2024 to help the military maintain and potentially boost its supplies of tritium, which decay over time and must be replenished if the U.S. is to maintain its nuclear arsenal. TVA plans to submit an amendment to its Watts Bar license by February 2023 to gain approval of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the extra tritium output.

If approved, TVA would begin the additional tritium production with the refueling of Watts Bar Unit 1 in the fall of 2024 and again with the refueling of Unit 2 in the spring of 2025.

Lyash said the tritium production at Watts Bar continues TVA's role in aiding the military, which included powering Oak Ridge to make the atomic bomb in World War II and developing both fertilizers and munitions in Alabama in the past.

"TVA has always been a critical part of our national defense, beginning with the Manhattan Project and continuing to this day," Lyash said. "We still have a very close relationship with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, and one of the services we provide is the production of tritium."

Lyash said irradiating tritium producing burnable absorber rods supports TVA's mission as a government utility and can be done at Watts Bar cheaper and more safely than alternative ways of tritium production. DOE reimburses TVA for its expenses involved in irradiating the bars.

Anti-war and anti-nuclear groups object to having a civilian nuclear power plant used for military purposes, which they say illegally crosses the line between civilian and military nuclear operations. Both Tom Clements, executive director of the Savannah River Site Watch, and Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Peace Alliance, urged the NRC this week to reject TVA's license amendment to make more tritium at Watts Bar because they say such production of a nuclear weapons component in a civilian nuclear plant violates international nuclear non-proliferation agreements, although the government has gone to some lengths to use materials not obligated by those agreements.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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