TVA moves forward with smaller nuclear reactor projects to achieve carbon-free goal

Nearly four decades after the Tennessee Valley Authority abandoned construction of more than half of the nuclear power plants it once planned to build, the federal utility is moving forward again with plans to pursue the next generation of ‘nuclear energy.

The federal utility said Tuesday it has an agreement with a nuclear manufacturer to pursue the design of a small modular reactor at the Clinch River reactor site near Oak Ridge and will spend the next year preparing a possible building permits to build a few 300 megawatt reactors. .

TVA Chairman Jeff Lyash said smaller nuclear reactors such as the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 being studied by TVA can be built more cost-effectively and offer more flexibility than previous generation nuclear power plants. Lyash said that as TVA pursues a range of energy options for its future, he believes small modular reactors will be needed to help TVA achieve its long-term goal of being carbon-free by 2050 while maintaining a reliable and relatively inexpensive power supply. .

“I am pleased to announce that TVA has taken another step down this path (towards the construction of a small modular reactor) and has signed a bipartisan agreement with GE-Hitachi that will support our planning and preliminary licensing for the potential deployment of an SMR (small modular reactor) at the Clinch River site,” Lyash said during a presentation of the results on Tuesday. “The agreement will provide additional information to analyze the viability of SMRs in the Valley. “

In the quarterly earnings report, TVA revealed that the board of directors this spring ratified the approval of a programmatic approach to explore the design of the GE-Hitachi reactor “in collaboration with other utilities, agencies governments, research institutes and organizations on advanced nuclear technologies”.

TVA and Ontario Power Co., the largest utilities in the United States and Canada, negotiated a bilateral contract with General Electric and Hitachi to develop and build the GE Hitachi BWRX-300. Lyash said TVA was targeting the fourth quarter of 2023 or the first quarter of 2024 to submit a construction permit application for the design of the smaller reactor, which could be built as early as 2030.

TVA’s latest move is part of a plan adopted by the board in February allocating up to $200 million to explore and develop the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 reactor design. The GE Hitachi model is one of more than two dozen small reactor designs under development.

Staff File Photo / The Tennessee Valley Authority building in Chattanooga is shown in 2016.

Lyash said the 300-megawatt size and light-water design of the GE Hitachi plan “matches the scale, load growth and decarbonization plans” the board set out when adopting its plan. diet plan in 2021.

“The BWRX-300 is an ideal technology solution for TVA because it views small modular reactors as a carbon-free source of generation,” Sean Sexton, executive vice president of advanced nuclear at GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, said in a statement. . Tuesday.

But some environmental groups are questioning TVA’s latest quest for more nuclear power, noting that most of the 17 reactors that TVA first proposed to build more than half a century ago have finally been shut down. scrapped due to cost overruns or other issues. TVA is the nation’s third-largest nuclear power operator, with seven reactors at its Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Browns Ferry nuclear plants. But 10 other reactors proposed by TVA were never completed even though TVA spent more than $10 billion on the abandoned plants.

“It’s quite frustrating to see TVA chasing after unproven technologies with no known costs like SMRs – or still wanting to build more natural gas production – while they lag behind in adopting proven, cost-effective technologies like solar.” , Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Clean Energy Alliance, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

Smith said TVA already gets more than 40% of its electricity from nuclear units, but the federal utility lags behind most of its neighbors in the share of solar and wind generation used to generate electricity. In the second quarter, 21% of TVA’s electricity came from natural gas plants, and TVA is proposing to build more gas plants to replace some of the coal generation it is shutting down.

TVA has pledged to shut down the last of 59 coal units it once operated by 2035 to help reduce its carbon emissions and aid President Joe Biden’s call to decarbonize the US electric grid.

Lyash said TVA is pursuing a new and diverse generation portfolio to ensure a reliable and resilient power system, and he is looking forward to exploring and expanding solar generation, battery storage, pumped hydro generation, advanced hydrogen technologies and other carbon-free energy production.

Last month, TVA announced it was seeking proposals for up to 5,000 megawatts of carbon-free power in one of the largest carbon-free generation applications in the country.

“But I think to meet the increased demand we expect for electricity, and to do so in a reliable, resilient, cost-effective and clean way, we need to consider a new nuclear generation,” Lyash said.

TVA was the first utility to obtain an early site permit to build up to 800 megawatts of nuclear power generation from small modular reactors at its Clinch River site in Oak Ridge. By a 3-to-1 vote, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted in 2019 to issue TVA a 20-year site license for the 935-acre site as an acceptable location for TVA to potentially construct and operate small modular reactors.

TVA is pursuing a two-step authorization process to proceed with a construction permit to build the new units and then later obtain an operating permit to operate the reactors.

“We are developing this construction license application, which we will make a decision to submit (to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in the fourth quarter of 2023 or the first quarter of 2024,” Lyash said.

The commission would have up to two years to review and decide on the building permit application. Lyash said the Oak Ridge project should serve as a model for other small modular reactors that TVA could also build at former coal-fired power plant sites or at the abandoned Bellefonte nuclear plant site in Alabama.

The decision to eventually build a small modular reactor will still require the approval of TVA’s board of directors and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In its Tuesday financial report, TVA said it spent $98 million on work on small modular reactors, including work to complete the first site permit application for the Clinch River nuclear site. The US Department of Energy, which operates the Oak Ridge National Laboratory near the Clinch River site, is a partner in some of the research on the project and has reimbursed $29 million to TVA.

“Additional expenses will be determined based on the future development of the project,” TVA said in its financial filing.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter at @dflessner1.

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