By Greg Boerschig, Vice President, Clinch River Nuclear Project

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s vision for utilizing advanced nuclear solutions is to create a reliable, affordable, flexible, and clean electricity generating option for the 2030s and beyond. Advanced nuclear reactors can play a key role in supporting the Tennessee Valley region’s record growth while ensuring our nation’s energy security. Earlier this year, TVA announced a partnership with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Ontario Power Generation and Synthos Green Energy to design a first-of-a-kind small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) that TVA is exploring for its Clinch River Nuclear (CRN) Site. The site will be an example for future opportunities as the technology continues to reveal the potential of Tennessee and America. 

Clinch River Nuclear Project

In December 2019, TVA became the first utility in the nation to successfully obtain approval for an early site permit from the NRC to potentially construct and operate SMRs at its CRN Site. In 2022, TVA initiated the development of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate the effects of a proposed advanced nuclear technology park at the CRN Site. To further champion these efforts, TVA’s Board of Directors has authorized up to $200 million for a program to explore technologies and potential locations for advanced nuclear reactors to support TVA’s clean energy goals.

The CRN property is approximately 1200 acres of land located on the northern bank of the Clinch River arm of the Watts Bar Reservoir in Oak Ridge, Roane County, Tennessee. This property includes the CRN Site, which is approximately 935 acres, and the Grassy Creek Habitat Protection Area, which is approximately 265 acres and located north of the CRN Site. The site has a number of significant advantages including two existing power lines that cross the site, easy access off of Highway 58, a brownfield site previously disturbed and characterized as a part of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project. It is immediately adjacent to DOE’s Oak Ridge Reservation, has a skilled local workforce, and easy access to the reservoir and major transportation routes.

We have developed a process, “Decision Gates,” that we use to ensure the project will not progress to the next phase until all of the design work, the scoping estimates and planning fully meet established criteria. We are currently in the planning phase – Decision Gate One – where we are developing the design up to nearly 50% completion before we are ready to support Decision Gate Two and then move to the final, construction phase.  After passing Decision Gate One, we have entered the Planning Phase in which we are developing the design to nearly 50% completion, and developing the Construction Permit Application.  If plans and estimates support, at  Decision Gate Two we will start preliminary site preparation activities and complete final construction readiness plans before entering Decision Gate 3 which is for plant construction.

Small Nuclear Reactor

If the goal is to have a carbon-free generation source portfolio, nuclear power will play a vital role in a highly reliable grid of the future. Because of the inherent availability limitations of renewable generation, grid fluctuations can occur with a strategy of just renewables alone – and those instantaneous fluctuations require a reliable source of generation to maintain grid voltage and meet demand. Until a reliable, cost-effective storage option becomes available, SMRs can play a vital role in renewable source generation availability. 

A SMR is typically defined by its size, power output and construction techniques – it’s roughly a tenth to a third of the size of a traditional nuclear plant. An SMR has a simpler design than a larger plant, but they are packed with innovation and high technology and an elongated service life. SMRs are built with load-following capability and can respond to variation in grid demands, and the power output is typically 300 megawatts or less. Load following is critical as TVA plans to add 10,000 megawatts of solar by 2035.

SMRs, like wind and solar, have zero carbon emissions, which makes them a good fit for a decarbonization strategy. They add high reliability, availability and capacity for our future grid.

Workforce Development

Staffing will be a significant component to the Clinch River site, and there are two aspects associated with the workforce needed to both build and staff the nuclear power plant.

The East Tennessee Economic Council has done a lot of work to evaluate the needs of both construction and operation of nuclear facilities. A large portion of the high-skilled workforce is retiring and exiting the industry, so it is critical that we develop resources of personnel to carry out the construction projects. Plant operation requires a massive amount of technology training and experience for digital applications, therefore partnerships with the University of Tennessee provide a unique opportunity to engage with students and prepare the nuclear workforce of the future.

Measuring success

It’s very important for projects such as this to prove that nuclear power can be a viable option – built safely, on budget, and on schedule.

A successful Clinch River Nuclear Project would both support TVA’s decarbonization journey and provide a reliable power source to meet load growth demands and stabilize a plant with a larger portfolio of renewables. To the Tennessee Valley, this will provide deep carbon reductions without compromising high reliability and low rates.

TVA is committed to investing in the future of nuclear and is partnering with organizations such as The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council to evaluate the economic feasibility of nuclear technologies and sites that build on the success of the current generation of reactors by leveraging the expertise and capabilities of local power companies, utilities, federally funded research and development centers and academic institutions. 

These partnerships are important steps in the early stages of evaluation as TVA considers the prospect of new nuclear. If you’re interested in learning more, watch TAEBC’s webinar, where I provide insights into TVA’s innovative advancements in nuclear energy and how it relates to its Clinch River Nuclear Project.

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