TVA seeks the support of the federal government, partners to build the next generation of nuclear energy


The Tennessee Valley Authority could become one of the first utilities to launch a new design of a smaller nuclear reactor that the developers hope will be simpler, cheaper and safer than existing nuclear power plants and could be essential in helping the larger the country’s public utility to become carbon-free with its power generation.

TVA is the first U.S. utility to obtain an early site permit for a small modular reactor proposed for construction on the Clinch River at Oak Ridge. TVA is investigating the feasibility of building several small reactors at the Oak Ridge site – and ultimately others at other abandoned power plant sites in the TVA seven-state area – to help replace power generation from TVA’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants.

But TVA CEO Jeff Lyash wants a partnership with other industry players and federal support if he is to be the leading developer of its kind for the new, smaller modular reactors.

“TVA won’t do this alone,” Lyash said at an American Nuclear Society conference last week. “There is always a higher cost for first class technology, but for TVA, we cannot ask our customers to bear that first class premium. I think there is a very clear role here for the federal government. to encourage the development and support of this promising technology. “

Lyash noted that a small 300-megawatt modular reactor built in Oak Ridge by TVA could generate enough carbon-free electricity to ensure that all federal facilities in the Tennessee Valley are net zero emitters of any greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse linked to global climate change. .

The Biden administration is urging federal agencies to go carbon-free in their own energy use over the next decade and a half, and environmental groups like the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy are pushing TVA to go carbon-free by 2030. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its affiliated military facilities currently generate 31% of all carbon output from all US Department of Energy facilities. A small modular reactor could supply all of the energy needed for the Oak Ridge Reserve with carbon-free electricity while also supplying electricity to other large federal facilities in the Tennessee Valley, including the Arsenal of Redstone and the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama and at Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

TVA is already working with the Department of Energy and the University of Tennessee to help consider new designs for small modular reactors.

Lyash said small light water reactor technology is already proven, although TVA has yet to select a specific design and builder if it decides to go ahead with building SMR at Oak Ridge. Lyash said the challenge will be to deploy the design and build the units on time and on budget.

Construction costs go nuclear

TVA completed the last new commercial nuclear reactor to be added to the U.S. electricity grid in 2016 when TVA completed its second unit at Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant near Spring City, Tennessee, more than 40 years after construction began. When TVA decided to resuscitate work on the unit, it estimated that the reactor could be completed for $ 2.5 billion, but the final cost exceeded $ 4.7 billion.

Construction delays and cost overruns at the only new nuclear power plant currently under construction – units 3 and 4 at the Vogtle plant in Georgia – have more than doubled the cost of the new units to more than $ 20 billion.

Critics of nuclear power insist that nuclear power is too expensive and risky as a means of controlling greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the radioactive dangers of nuclear power and the cost overruns of building new power plants should convince TVA not to pursue more nuclear power, although his group is not pushing for an immediate shutdown of any of TVA’s existing nuclear power plants.

“There is a significant amount of carbon-free energy being generated by existing nuclear reactors and it is not an easy decision to just shut down all existing reactors,” Smith said. “But we have to consider moving away from nuclear technology in the longer term and we are certainly not fans of SMRs (small modular reactors) which have not yet been proven.”

Lyash, a nuclear engineer who previously worked at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said new technologies in nuclear energy and carbon sequestration will be needed to make the VAT a source of fully electric power generation. carbon-free, especially since the demand for electricity could grow again as electricity vehicles replace gasoline-powered cars and trucks. TVA has been studying the possibility of siting a small modular reactor at the Clinch River site since 2014 and acquired an early site permit from the NRC in 2019.

TVA pioneers new emergency zones

But the TVA council has not yet authorized the construction of new small modular reactors. TVA was recognized last week by the Nuclear Energy Institute for its work to engage the public in the issue of an appropriately sized contingency planning area for potential small modular reactors at Oak Ridge. TVA was selected by NEI for a Top Innovative Practice award for its work on site preparations and the potential deployment of the new reactor design.

“Technological innovation is part of TVA’s mission,” said Dan Stout, director of nuclear technology innovation at TVA. “Maintaining positive engagement with the public is important to our long-term success in exploring new nuclear technology and the innovation that will make it possible.

For more than 40 years, regulations on reactors like those used by TVA and other utilities to generate electricity have required a 10-mile contingency planning zone. Smaller and advanced nuclear reactor designs do not require such a large area.

As a result of TVA’s work to educate the public and community leaders about safe and economical emergency planning areas, NRC approved this method for the Clinch River site application.

“TVA’s work paves the way for other players in the nuclear sector to potentially implement scalable contingency planning zones, with some already using the TVA model to develop their own approaches for emergency planning zone applications. ’emergency,’ Stout said.

TVA representatives actively sought public input on the project and provided immediate feedback. TVA also offered bus tours of the Clinch River site.

“We have established a relationship with neighboring plants and look forward to maintaining this long-term relationship as we explore advanced nuclear for the Clinch River site,” said Stout.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340.

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