Nuclear power advancements in Virginia could come to Tennessee

Nuclear power advancements in Virginia could come to Tennessee

Posted:
The 1300-acre Clinch River site in Oak Ridge, owned by TVA, was first considered for a nuclear reactor in 1970. The 1300-acre Clinch River site in Oak Ridge, owned by TVA, was first considered for a nuclear reactor in 1970.
"As we begin to operate the plant, because we need less people and because of the more inherent safety systems, the operational costs are lower than conventional plants," said Joe Hoagland of TVA. "As we begin to operate the plant, because we need less people and because of the more inherent safety systems, the operational costs are lower than conventional plants," said Joe Hoagland of TVA.
While traditional large nuclear plants rise high above the landscape, SMRs are mostly underground, their design vertical. While traditional large nuclear plants rise high above the landscape, SMRs are mostly underground, their design vertical.
"Financially, these things cannot compete with natural gas. Their price points are going to continue to go up while renewables and efficiencies will continue to come down," said Stephen Smith, a spokesman for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Financially, these things cannot compete with natural gas. Their price points are going to continue to go up while renewables and efficiencies will continue to come down," said Stephen Smith, a spokesman for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

By GENE PATTERSON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WATE) - A new generation of nuclear reactors called SMRs could be producing power in the U.S. within the next ten years.

A lot of it though will depend on what happens on the Clinch River in Oak Ridge.

It is there that manufacturer Babcock and Wilcox, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Department of Energy have partnered to build the nation's first small modular reactor, an SMR.

A lot is at stake, and not just for the partners. Tennessee Valley consumers will be impacted too.

The question: Will it be positive or negative?

6 News traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia, where B&W is already engaged in research and development, to seek the answer.

But first, we visited the Clinch River site in Oak Ridge. The 1,300 acre site, owned by TVA, was first considered for a nuclear reactor in 1970. The project, a breeder reactor, was abandoned in 1983 after costs spiraled out of control. By some estimates, the project blew through more than $8 billion with nothing much to show for it.

Now comes a new project, involving a different kind of technology. It's a reactor that its supporters say is small, reliable, and cost effective; and can be constructed where transmission lines are already in place, like a TVA coal fired plant.

TVA's Joe Hoagland says replacing the agency's aging coal fleet is a major task.

"It needs to be a technology that can fit within that site," Hoagland said. "The SMRs smaller scale has big potential to do that."

In Lynchburg, Babcock and Wilcox is betting SMRs offer more than just potential.

They've spent hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development in the race to be the first with a working SMR.

In facilities around the city, B&W is developing the manufacturing processes, the precision instruments and the software to make the reactor a reality and to do it quickly.

"Our goal is not to move new technologies down the field. But what we're trying to do is something that reduces the economic and financial risk of deploying plants. So less is more when it comes to technology. We're really re-engineering the existing light water technology that's been proven in this country for the past 40 years," said Christofer Mowry, with Babcock and Wilcox.

While traditional large nuclear plants rise high above the landscape, SMRs are mostly underground, their design vertical. The reactor core sits at the bottom, allowing water to flow naturally down to cool the plant. It's a unique concept and one that the NRC has yet to license.

"Public health and safety are key in their minds and so when you come with a new design, a new technology, they're going to make sure that you've proven beyond doubt the design is safe," said Darren Gale, B&W's manager of the SMR project.

To do that, B&W has created a unique laboratory, a first of its kind full mockup of an SMR. The only difference is that electricity is powering this system.

During our visit, we were given limited access to the lower portion of what would be the reactor vessel. The entire facility is an exact replica of what an SMR will look like. The one we saw has been operating for about a year, providing valuable data back to B&W for future use.

"This thing models not just the reactor, but the entire nuclear island. Everything that's related to safety and actual generation of steam for the turbines is modeled in here at full fidelity, so we can predict exactly how the real machines are going to operate once we get it built," said Mowry.

That predictability is vital in their efforts to get NRC approval, but it's only part of the story.

"Ultimately, it's all about cost and safety and being clean and depending on who you talk to, not necessarily in that order," added Gale.

While the upfront cost for an SMR, about $1 billion, is less than a traditional large reactor because of its smaller size, the cost per kilowatt is about the same. The advantage, we're told, is after it's built.

"As we begin to operate the plant, because we need less people and because of the more inherent safety systems, the operational costs are lower than conventional plants. And the fuel cycle is longer than in traditional plants, so we bring down the plant less for refueling outages, so that saves us significant money," said Hoagland of TVA.

TVA also hopes SMRs can help the utility maintain a balanced energy mix or portfolio.

"The best value for our customers in the valley is a balanced portfolio," said Hoagland. "In the long run we'll have coal, we'll have gas, nuclear and renewables and energy efficiencies. And as things change, gas prices change, other commodity prices change, then our customers are insulated from the volatility."

But what about the issue of spent fuel? If SMRs begin to replace coal fired plants, a long term problem becomes what to do with the waste?

"We still haven't solved the nuclear waste issue in the United States. So these reactors don't do anything. They're smaller units on-site, but on a per-energy basis they're creating the same amount of nuclear waste," said Stephen Smith, a spokesman for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Smith says waste is just one hurdle. Another hurdle: Do SMRs make economic sense?

"Financially, these things cannot compete with natural gas. Their price points are going to continue to go up while renewables and efficiencies will continue to come down," said Smith.

Mowry disagrees: "If you look at the true cost of wind and solar and the amount of time, nuclear is a much cheaper option. So it's got to be an option going forward, so for consumers who're concerned about clean energy and cost, this is a great solution."

"You come back, we'll do an interview six years from now. They will not have a SMR at Clinch River, I'm 100 percent confident of that," Smith countered.

To prove Smith wrong, B&W must first get NRC approval for its SMR design. Second, the Clinch River property must be certified as an appropriate site to build. And TVA has to agree that building and operating an SMR is the best use of its financial resources.

"We've got to get more into those details. Do we believe the operational costs will be more effective? Do we believe the plant can be operated more safely than traditional plants? If we can't realize those benefits, then the advantages of this technology are not as beneficial as we'd like them to be, so we'll explore that over the next couple of years," said Hoagland.

TVA says its construction priority continues to be completion of its second unit at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. But Hoagland says it will keep a close eye on the SMR project.

So will the Department of Energy, which hopes to have the SMR up and running and powering facilities at the Oak Ridge Reservation by 2022.

Powered by WorldNow

1306 N. Broadway NE Knoxville,
Tennessee 37917

Telephone: 865.637.NEWS(6397)
Fax: 865.525.4091
Email: newsroom@wate.com

Can’t find something?
Powered by WorldNow
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2014 Young Broadcasting of Knoxville, Inc. A Media General Company.