DOE award could lead to small nuclear reactors in Oak Ridge

Note: This story was updated at 8:12 p.m.

Four small nuclear reactors could be built on the Clinch River in west Oak Ridge in about a decade under a federal award announced Tuesday.

In its announcement, the U.S. Department of Energy said it will invest up to half of the total cost of the project to design, license, and help commercialize the new small modular reactors, or SMRs. The investment will come through a five-year cost-sharing agreement.

The project will be led by The Babcock & Wilcox Co, which is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., and has a business unit that oversees the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge. The company’s partners on the SMR project are Bechtel and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

DOE said the SMRs, which can produce 180 megawatts, could offer a range of benefits, including lower costs and construction times. The “plug and play” reactors would be about one-third the size of traditional nuclear power plants. They are considered ideal for small electric grids and sites that can’t support large reactors.

“The Obama Administration continues to believe that low-carbon nuclear energy has an important role to play in America’s energy future,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said. “Restarting the nation’s nuclear industry and advancing small modular reactor technologies will help create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses, and ensure we continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to American energy production.”

B&W said TVA is seeking a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license for up to four of the B&W mPower SMRs at the Clinch River Site in west Oak Ridge. That 1,300-acre site is the main one under consideration, B&W Communications Manager Aimee Mills said Tuesday night. It was once considered for a breeder reactor, but that project was canceled in the early 1980s.

The next step could be for DOE and B&W to negotiate the exact award total for the SMR project. DOE said the industrial partners will match its investment by at least one-to-one.

Mills said the SMRs could be built by 2022.

“This will help us stay on an aggressive schedule, having that extra investment from DOE,” she said.

B&W said the mPower America team and its members currently have nearly 400 employees, including engineers and designers, working on the development and licensing of the B&W mPower SMR. The company touted the project’s ability to help revitalize the U.S. commercial nuclear manufacturing infrastructure and create jobs at manufacturing facilities and suppliers. B&W said its subsidiaries have executed 150 agreements with suppliers in 36 states to support the B&W mPower program

“With this public-private partnership, the DOE is providing important national leadership for America in the global pursuit of SMR technology,” said E. James Ferland, B&W president and chief executive officer. “This partnership is essential to reestablishing our nation’s international competitiveness in the nuclear energy industry, as well as enhancing U.S. manufacturing infrastructure and energy independence.”

DOE said it plans to issue a follow-on solicitation open to other companies and manufacturers, focused on furthering small modular reactor efficiency, operations, and design. The department said the SMR project represents a significant investment in first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification, and licensing for small modular reactors in the United States.

Tuesday’s award announcement followed a funding opportunity announcement in March 2012.

The SMR project will be based in Tennessee and will support more suppliers and operations in Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Here’s the DOE announcement.

Here’s the B&W press release.

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