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The Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to work with the nuclear engineering department at the University of Tennessee to study the potential of building the nation's first commercial small modular reactor (SMR) in Oak Ridge.

TVA announced the agreement Tuesday, which is similar to the memo of understanding TVA has to also work with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to evaluate the development of small modular reactors at TVA's Clinch River Nuclear Site in Roane County.

TVA is the only utility in the nation with an approved early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to potentially build small modular reactors, which are much smaller than today's commercial nuclear power plants and thereby potentially offer more flexibility, safety and cost-effective design. TVA has not made a decision yet to build any SMRs and would first need approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a specific design.

But TVA spokeswoman Malinda Hunter said the partnerships with UT and ORNL are important steps in the early stages of evaluation as TVA considers the prospect of new nuclear generation.

"UT offers unique capabilities supporting TVA's mission for innovation in nuclear power," TVA President Jeff Lyash said in an announcement of the deal today. "This partnership allows us to better explore new nuclear technologies through UT's advanced modeling and simulation tools as we continue to pursue a clean energy future."

TVA's long-range power plan does not envision TVA needing additional generating capacity over the next two decades, but it will need to replace any power capacity lost by the phase out of more coal or older natural gas generation. TVA currently generates about 40% of its total power from its seven existing nuclear reactors in Tennessee and Alabama.

The last nuclear reactor to start up in America was built by TVA at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City, Tenn, which added a second reactor in 2016.

TVA, which once planned to build 17 commercial nuclear reactors, has scrapped plans for 10 of those units after the growth in power demand in the Tennessee Valley slowed and the cost of building the nuclear plants rose. But proponents of small modular reactors believe they could operate more safely and reliably and be built to scale for different power needs.

The 955-acre site proposed for the small modular reactors is where the Clinch River Breeder Reactor was developed nearly a half century ago until President Jimmy Carter canceled that project over fears it could lead to nuclear proliferation.

UT will help TVA evaluate the economic feasibility of potentially operating light-water or non-light water fission reactors that build on the success of the current generation of reactors. TVA said the partnership also provides a unique opportunity to engage with students and prepare the nuclear workforce of the future.

"Established in 1957, our department is the oldest and one of the most prestigious in the country," said UT Engineering Department Head Wes Hines. "This strategic partnership with TVA to build highly efficient advanced reactors will help us pave the way for a clean, reliable energy future."

Lyash has previously said the small modular reactor is an example of how TVA, as a federal corporation, can help foster innovation and research. But he said the federal utility will build smaller reactors only when needed and when they are cost effective.

TVA signed a similar agreement with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in February 2020 to explore advanced reactor designs as a next-generation nuclear technology with potential for improved safety and increased flexibility.

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