U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Tennessee Valley Authority CEO Jeff Lyash joined forces this week at the Clinch River Nuclear Site to praise the site’s potential to answer a fundamental question of energy in the 21st century: how to make nuclear power plants smaller and more affordable. The Secretary’s visit marked the potential construction of small modular reactors at TVA’s Clinch River Nuclear Site near Oak Ridge as a project of national and global significance. Read more at Knoxville News Sentinel
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Tennessee Valley Authority CEO Jeff Lyash joined forces Dec. 5 at the Clinch River Nuclear Site to praise the site’s potential to answer a fundamental question of energy in the 21st century: how to make nuclear power plants smaller and more affordable.
Her visit marked the potential construction of small modular reactors at TVA’s Clinch River Nuclear Site as a project of national and global significance. Small modular reactors are smaller and produce less power than traditional nuclear plants, but are expected to cost far less and could be built in clusters to match the output of shuttered coal-fired plants.
In the future, the small modular reactors could bring carbon-free power to hospitals and factories, cropping up across the U.S. like coal plants did a century ago.
The Biden administration’s massive investments in clean energy have placed Granholm, a former two-term governor of Michigan, among the most powerful secretaries of energy.
The Department of Energy owns much of Oak Ridge, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex, and frequently partners with TVA.
Granholm said TVA and its partners in Oak Ridge and Knoxville are leading the way on new nuclear technology that could help the administration reach its ambitious goals of a carbon-free national electric grid by 2035 and a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050.
“Oak Ridge has such an important role to play in our national security and in our clean energy future,” Granholm told Knox News. “That combination makes it irresistible.”
No small modular reactors have been built in the U.S., though several are under development. In 2019, the Clinch River Nuclear Site was the first small modular reactor project to get an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, giving TVA the all-clear to move towards design and budgeting.
When will TVA small modular reactors be built?
The biggest question for the agency now is how to pay for the small modular reactors. Being the first to deploy the technology is always costlier, said Lyash, the TVA CEO. He expects the money to come in part from electricity sales and from outside investment, though a detailed budget is years away.
By 2026 or 2027, the agency will make a final decision on whether to build a small modular reactor at the Clinch River site, pending final design and budget models. TVA would then apply for a construction permit and operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
If the first unit successfully comes online in the early 2030s, TVA plans to build several others at the site to demonstrate the technology can be deployed throughout the country.
In March, TVA announced it would join partners to invest $400 million to develop GE Hitachi’s 300 megawatt small modular reactor technology, which the agency plans to license and build at the Clinch River Nuclear Site.
Ontario Power in Canada and Synthos Green Energy in Poland are the other two partners. Granholm called the four partners, two in the U.S. and two in allied nations, a “magic elixir” for making small modular reactors a reality in the U.S.
The U.S. joined more than 20 countries in a declaration committing to triple their nuclear fleets by 2050 at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai on Dec. 2. That requires the U.S. to go from 100 gigawatts to 300 gigawatts of nuclear power, something Granholm said would be impossible without small modular reactors.
A gigawatt is enough to power around 750,000 homes. Hoover Dam has a power output of around two gigawatts. By 2050, the U.S. must create enough new nuclear power generation to equal 100 Hoover Dams, Granholm said.
The global clean energy technology market is expected to reach $23 trillion by 2030 and the U.S. is in a position to export that technology stamped with a “Made in America” label, Granholm said.
For her, the jobs that small modular reactors and other clean energy technologies could bring is personal. As governor of Michigan during the Great Recession, she saw thousands of auto manufacturing jobs leave her state.
“We used to stand by the side of the road and watch all these jobs leave and I was governor when I saw these factories close,” Granholm told Knox News. “We allowed China to take us to the cleaners. And we’re not doing that anymore. We’re standing up and we’re saying, no, we’re going to get those jobs and those businesses in the United States.”
A rendering shows TVA’s small modular reactor at the Clinch River Site, about the size of a football field, could
look like once completed. Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Authority.
Clinch River Site could bring clean energy future
The Clinch River Nuclear Site, located on a bend of the river a few miles east of the Kingston Fossil Plant, doesn’t look like much right now. It’s a field with a few trailers as workspaces and picket fences to mark the corners of the future small modular reactor units.
It was once meant to house a breeder reactor, which would create more nuclear fuel than it used, though President Jimmy Carter opposed the expensive project and Congress pulled the plug on funding in the 1980s.
The 2020s are a different story, and small modular reactors are a different kind of technology.
President Biden authorized $369 billion of investment in clean energy projects, from EV battery manufacturing to advanced nuclear energy, in the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest single investment in clean energy in U.S. history. Some $36 billion of that money went to Department of Energy projects.
Early last year, the department created a structure to implement $62 billion for clean energy projects from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021. The department has a rigorous auditing process to ensure money is used correctly by recipients, Granholm said. Funding is given in increments contingent on projects reaching critical milestones.
Even as it expands its nuclear technology and retires coal plants, Lyash said he expects nuclear will occupy the same proportion of TVA’s energy mix as it does now. In fiscal year 2023, nuclear generation made up 42% of TVA’s total power generation.
For the first time, all seven units at three plants – Browns Ferry, Sequoyah and Watts Bar – were recognized for their excellence by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.
Lyash said the mission of TVA, the nation’s largest public power provider, is to help the U.S. maintain its position as the world’s largest economy through 2050, a goal that will require reliable, affordable and safe nuclear technology.
Daniel Dassow is a growth and development reporter focused on technology and energy. Phone 423-637-0878. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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