The small modular nuclear reactors being evaluated for the Clinch River Site in west Oak Ridge could provide an emissions-free fuel source, but it could be a decade or so before they start operating. And that’s assuming all goes according to plan, officials said Tuesday.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is evaluating the possibility of building the small modular reactors, or SMRs, at the 1,200-acre Clinch River Site. To help prepare for the project, TVA plans to apply for what is known as an early site permit, or ESP, for the Oak Ridge project from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by May 12.
The NRC had two public meetings at Oak Ridge Associated Universities on Tuesday to discuss the safety and environmental review process related to the TVA permit application.
The early site permit application will allow the NRC to evaluate site safety, the environment, and emergency preparedness for future SMRs at the Clinch River Site. That site is in west Oak Ridge just north of the Clinch River and Interstate 40, south of Heritage Center (the former K-25 site), and between Highway 95 and Highway 58 in a bend of the Clinch River.
The review of TVA’s application for an early site permit could take about three years, and maybe longer if any groups raise legal challenges, said Scott Burnell, NRC public affairs officer.
There will be at least two more public meetings once TVA meets the basic requirements to have its early site permit application reviewed. The NRC will come back to ask for community input on environmental issues, Burnell said. After that meeting, it will take about a year for the NRC to draft an environmental impact statement, and federal officials will return to Oak Ridge before finalizing it, Burnell said.
There are currently no SMRs certified by the NRC, but NuScale plans to submit a design certification application later this year, said Dan Stout, TVA senior manager for small modular reactors.
Burnell said design certification could take about four to five years. That means it would probably be the early 2020s before a design is certified.
Once a design is selected, assuming the TVA board wants to proceed with the project, then the public utility would have to apply for a separate operating and construction license. Reviewing that application could take another three years, meaning the 40-year license, which is renewable in 20-year increments, might not be issued until the mid-2020s.
But TVA hasn’t committed to an SMR design yet. Besides the NuScale design, Stout said, three other options could include the mPower design from Bechtel and Babcock and Wilcox (B&W), and designs from Holtec and Westinghouse.
It’s not clear yet how many SMRs could be built in Oak Ridge, but it could range between two and six. TVA has said SMRs are designed to be used in groups, but no decision has been made about the number that could be built here.
The small modular reactors, or SMRs, would be smaller than traditional nuclear power plants, and they would produce less power. All of TVA’s traditional nuclear power plants generate at least 1,100 megawatts, compared to the 80-200 megawatts of a proposed SMR.
Still, SMRs could provide enough electricity to power several cities the size of Oak Ridge. One hundred megawatts is enough to power about 60,000 homes. (Oak Ridge has about 12,000 homes.)
Unlike a traditional nuclear power plant, SMRs could be produced in a factory and transferred to a site by trucks or railroads, Stout said. They wouldn’t have the hyperbolic cooling tower associated with traditional nuclear power plants. But they would still use low-enriched uranium, Burnell said.
The cost per megawatt isn’t known yet.
Officials say the traditional large, expensive nuclear power plants are great for providing base load power. They are designed to stay at 100 percent power throughout the fuel cycle.
But they have to be built on location and aren’t scalable. And it takes about five to 10 years to bring one online, and that requires projecting power needs a decade or more into the future, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said last month.
In contrast, the lower-output SMRs are designed to be brought online in sequence. Investments in those nuclear plants can be phased in in smaller, more manageable chunks, Hopson said.
Not everyone supports the proposal. Some expressed their objections at the second of the two public meeting hosted by the NRC in Oak Ridge on Tuesday. One hundred or more people attended an afternoon session, and another group showed up for an evening session.
Among the concerns at the evening session were safety, cost, the storage of spent fuel, the potential effect on water temperature and fish in the Clinch River, the location near a possible airport at Heritage Center (the former K-25 site), and the efficiency of SMRs, as measured by cost per megawatt and compared to other power sources, including renewables.
Taylor Allred of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Knoxville questioned whether TVA even needs additional power and whether the SMR technology has been fully evaluated. He also raised questions about the “long, troubled history” of the Clinch River Site, where work on the Clinch River Breeder Reactor started in the 1970s before being canceled by Congress in the early 1980s.
“It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad,” Allred said. “SMRs do not make any sense. Not today, not tomorrow…Nuclear power as it stands today is not cost-effective.”
Mary Olson, director of the Southeast Office of Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Asheville, North Carolina, raised safety and radioactivity concerns, saying she had recently visited Fukushima, Japan, the site of a nuclear disaster after a tsunami several years ago.
At Tuesday’s meeting, one Roane County resident said the community has been a “pincushion for experimentation,” citing the TVA ash spill in Kingston in 2008, and the security breach in 2012 and mercury cleanup work at the Y-12 National Security Complex and in East Fork Poplar Creek.
“Sometimes it feels like a pincushion,” he said. “This is just another pin in the cushion.”
But others, including University of Tennessee engineering students, seemed to support the SMR proposal, suggesting the reactors could help reduce the nation’s dependency on carbon-emitting fossil fuels.
And others said the NRC staff members are regulators, comparing their review to the equivalent of a zoning determination, in which they look at site safety—but not cost—and make sure a plant could operate safely while protecting public safety and health.
Some of the questions and concerns raised Tuesday—such as how the nation gets its power—are not reviewable by the NRC, and others, such as the need for power and the storage of spent fuel, won’t be part of the review process for the early site permit application but could be studied later.
Right now, the NRC is just examining whether the plans that TVA is describing will support a power plant, Burnell said.
In interviews before and after the public meeting, he said the SMR designs that are closest to being submitted would have reactors themselves that are no higher than ground level, although some associated facilities such as switchyards would be above ground. The NuScale design has a facility to store spent fuel for an extended period of time, or the lifetime of the reactor, Burnell said.
The proposal to build small modular nuclear reactors, possibly including in Oak Ridge, has been in the works for a number of years. The Clinch River units could be, depending upon the timing, the first commercial reactors of their type in the United States.
Besides TVA in Oak Ridge, the NRC has had preliminary discussions with a group of municipal utilities in Utah that are working with the U.S. Department of Energy on possibly building SMRs at Idaho National Laboratory.
The TVA/Oak Ridge and Utah/Idaho projects are the only two sites where SMRs are actively being discussed, Burnell said. Both sites appear to have some interaction with DOE. In Oak Ridge, DOE and Oak Ridge National Laboratory reportedly have an interest in the proposed TVA project at the Clinch River Site, although the department and lab are not directly involved.
Burnell said the NRC has concluded an early site review in New Jersey, but the type of reactor hasn’t been specified there, although SMRs are a possibility.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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