Oak Ridge Lab, TVA sign MOU on developing next-gen advanced nuclear energy options

Illustration courtesy Wikimedia.

The growing movement to find a smaller, flexible and more affordable way of harnessing next-generation nuclear energy is creating new partnerships at a growing pace.

The latest teaming finds the Tennessee Valley Authority and U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory signing a memorandum of understanding focused on advanced nuclear reactors. Under the agreement, ORNL and TVA will collaborate on ways to improve the economic feasibility of potentially licensing, building, operating and maintaining one or more advanced nuclear reactors, such as a small modular reactor, at TVA’s 935 acre Clinch River site in East Tennessee.

This announcement joins previously announced partnerships and design advancements involving companies such as NuScale Power, Lightbridge, Framatome and South Korea’s SMART SMR. These SMRs (small modular reactors) offer the potential for development, construction and commissioning with lower land footprints, fuel needs, safety concerns and, nearly as importantly, costs.

TVA has not made a decision to build and would first need approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a specific design. The research performed at ORNL through DOE’s national programs has enabled multiple utilities to innovate and improve power generation through the development and use of new materials, processes and state-of-the-art technologies.

“We are combining our world-leading research capabilities and TVA’s operating expertise to accelerate the next generation of cost-effective nuclear power,” ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said. “Nuclear has long been a key component of the U.S. energy portfolio, and growing demand for emission-free electricity requires that we innovate to ensure safe, affordable and efficient nuclear power for generations to come.”

Nuclear energy makes up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. electricity resource mix and more than half of the carbon-free power produced. Georgia Power’s expansion to add two new reactor units to the Vogtle Generating Plant is headed toward completion within the next two years, but the project is costing more than $25 billion and was in danger of being abandoned due to cost overruns and original contractor Westinghouse’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Vogtle is the only new nuclear construction project underway in the U.S., while the Hinkley Point C project in the United Kingdom also has faced cost and delay challenges.

Nuclear power accounts for more than one-third of TVA’s generation portfolio and offers a carbon-free alternative in thermal power.

“Nuclear generation plays an important role in providing clean, reliable power at TVA,” TVA President & CEO Jeff Lyash said. “This partnership with ORNL supports TVA’s mission for innovation and will allow us to better explore potential future nuclear technologies that benefit the 10 million people across seven states and help lead nuclear energy’s future in the United States.” 

The partnership will take advantage of ORNL’s scientific expertise and its unique facilities including the High Flux Isotope Reactor, Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility and Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.

This new effort builds on decades of collaboration between TVA and ORNL, leveraging nuclear capabilities and assets from both organizations, including a 2016 effort using modeling tools developed at ORNL to predict the first six months of operations of TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 2 nuclear power plant. Specific areas of importance that will be evaluated by the participants of the MOU include, but are not limited to:

  • Development of advanced construction techniques.
  • Evaluation of integrated development activities for site infrastructure support.
  • Development of various economic deployment catalysts.
  • Innovation of advanced manufacturing technologies.
  • Use of technology deployment to meet regulatory and safety requirements more efficiently.

“As a pioneer in nuclear energy and home of the world’s first continuously operating reactor, ORNL continues its commitment to innovation in nuclear science and technology,” said Alan Icenhour, associate laboratory director for Nuclear Science and Engineering at ORNL. “We look forward to partnering with TVA and the potential for introducing a new nuclear energy era.”

(Rod Walton is content director for Power Engineering and POWERGEN International. He can be reached at 918-831-9177 and rod.walton@clarionevents.com).

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Nuclear, hydrogen and the new energy mix will all be part of the content offered at POWERGEN International happening December 8-10 in Orlando. The POWERGEN 2020 call for abstracts is now open and ready for submissions.

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