Governor voices support for small Oak Ridge nuclear reactor
In his State of the State Address, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee spoke of his desire to revive a project at Oak Ridge, the Clinch River site, for a small modular reactor fleet.
“We are working directly with TVA to formalize a long-term strategy so that the Clinch River site can be part of America’s diet,” Lee said. “If we’re going to have a real conversation about energy in America, it has to be safe, cheap to produce, and reliable. I believe that conversation starts right here in Tennessee, at the Clinch River site.”
“Today, many may not realize that Tennessee gets more energy from nuclear power than from any other source,” he said. “Nuclear energy is clean energy that actually works for the private sector. It has allowed us to land great economic projects because not only is it clean, but it is also cheap to produce.”
Jim Hopson, TVA’s public information manager, told The Oak Ridger in an interview that if it goes ahead, the project aims to “demonstrate the feasibility” of a small modular reactor. Eventually, he said, it would be a “complete work unit” to generate electricity for the power grid.
TVA is still seeking certain permits and approvals for the site. Hopson said TVA hopes to have a small modular reactor online by the 2030s, but he “wouldn’t want to speculate when construction would start.” He also said it would be “difficult to estimate” how many people would work either building the plant or operating it because it is different from current nuclear reactors.
“We know the Coal Fleet is nearing the end of its viable life,” Hopson said.
He said TVA was focused on moving towards a carbon-free power generation model, but renewables like wind, water and solar might have their limits. He said renewables “are not a 24/7 source of energy”.
“The sun doesn’t always shine. The wind doesn’t always blow,” he said.
This reactor, if it went ahead, would be the first of its kind built in the United States and one of the first in the world. Hopson said the small modular reactors will be smaller than other types of reactors and their parts could eventually be built more cheaply in factories rather than on site.
Compared to current reactors such as the pair at the Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station in Spring City, they wouldn’t have to run at full power all the time but could keep up with demand, making them ideal for filling gaps when the power generated by the sun and wind are not available. Also, they could be used to add small amounts of power to the power grid as needed.
“We appreciate the governor’s words of support. Like the Governor, we believe that advanced nuclear technology plays an important role in accelerating our push towards decarbonization, both for TVA and for the country. We continue to assess Clinch River’s potential and hope to have more news in the near future,” said Scott Brooks, also at TVA Public Relations.
TVA has proposed a technology park that would contain one or more advanced nuclear reactors with a combined electrical output not exceeding 800 megawatts. Brooks described the site as hosting a small modular reactor.
The U.S. Department of Energy has received $230 million from Congress to help fund the demonstration of advanced nuclear reactors, and one possible site for such a reactor is TVA’s 935-acre Clinch River nuclear site in part of Roane County in Oak Ridge, Rita Baranwal, said the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy in 2020.
The site was prepared for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project which Congress terminated in 1983.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRc) has authorized the issuance of an Early Site Permit for the site. The permit resolves several site-related issues, including numerous environmental impacts, for small modular reactors at this location.
Brooks said there is a “litany of other permits” the utility would need to start building.
TVA still hasn’t decided whether to pursue the plan, Brooks said, or how many reactors the site would house.
The possible construction of one or more reactors on the site has been the subject of criticism. Some environmental groups have opposed the project, saying the reactors remain untested, unsafe and useless. Some citizens also cited problems with the karst terrain. Regarding these karst concerns, Hopson said the reactor will have to meet Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards.
Another criticism from environmentalists concerns whether these small reactors should also have a smaller emergency planning zone around them. Hopson said a final decision on that hasn’t been made, but because new factories would be smaller, have more passive safety systems, and be more self-contained, it’s likely their planning areas will emergency would be smaller than the 10 miles from Watts Bar. , which is standard.
Ben Pounds is a staff reporter for The Oak Ridger. Call him at (865) 441-2317, email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Bpoundsjournal. Local writer Carolyn Krause contributed to this story, as did the Associated Press.