Building a nuclear power plant is a difficult job. It takes years of planning and sometimes more than a decade to complete. The risk of schedule delays is great, especially on first-of-a-kind projects, and the financial implications of such setbacks can ruin a company.
Yet, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA’s) president and CEO, Jeff Lyash, suggested the risk is worth taking, that is, if lessons learned from one project can be parlayed into success in future projects. That’s why TVA is studying the addition of a small modular reactor (SMR) at its Clinch River site. Lyash envisions using that first unit as a template to eventually make Clinch River a four-unit site, and then replicating that design in at least four other locations within TVA’s service territory.
“I’ve said very vocally, I [want] nothing to do with building one reactor, unless I can build 20—and 20 is the low estimate—and so, this is what Clinch River is about,” Lyash said as a guest on The POWER Podcast.
While TVA continues to support and examine all of the various SMR designs being proposed, and it is also following the development of Generation IV advanced nuclear technology, it has selected GE-Hitachi’s (GEH’s) BWRX-300 design for its Clinch River site. “We picked the BWRX-300 technology because the X stands for the 10th generation. We know this fuel works. We know this technology works,” Lyash said.
Lyash noted that there are 50 years’ worth of experience behind the GEH design. He said engineers have applied modularization processes and advanced manufacturing techniques to advance the design, but the technology behind it all is well-established. “This allows us to focus on what I think the risk is that’s yet to be proven, and that is, can we finish a first-of-a-kind on schedule and on budget, and can we demonstrate the movement to nth-of-a-kind rapidly, and can we turn that into a fleet?” Lyash said.
“We intend Clinch River to be a four-unit site,” Lyash explained. “There’s an optimum way to build four units. It includes a lot of overlap—supply chain, labor, etc. That’s what we want to develop, but we’re going to ‘unlap’ the first unit so that we can learn all those lessons, identify all those risks, and make units two and three and four look significantly better and different, so that when we build site two, three, and four, we’ve got that,” he said.
TVA is a wholly owned U.S. government corporation created by Congress in 1933. It is the largest public power company in the country, providing electricity for 153 local power companies serving 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states, as well as directly to 58 large industrial customers and federal installations. It doesn’t get taxpayer funding; rather, its revenues come from sales of electricity. TVA also provides flood control, navigation, and land management for the Tennessee River system, and assists local power companies and regional governments with their economic development efforts.
Because of TVA’s unique position as an entity of the federal government, Lyash believes it should be a leader for the power industry. “Because of TVA’s special role, we’re really doing it to support the nation, because what we’d really love to happen is fast followers,” he said. In other words, he hopes once TVA proves that an SMR can be constructed on time and on budget, other power companies will jump on the new nuclear construction bandwagon.
In March, TVA signed a technology collaboration agreement with Canada’s Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and Synthos Green Energy (SGE), which is part of Poland’s biggest private industrial group. The deal is intended to shape a standard design for the BWRX-300, which could speed up the technology’s regulatory acceptance and spur future deployments. “My view from the beginning is: this is best done in partnership, and it’s best done that way because, again, we’re not trying to build one reactor and we’re not trying to just do it for TVA,” Lyash said.
OPG, for its part, is actually further down the new construction trail than TVA. The company announced in December 2021 that it would build a BWRX-300 at its Darlington Nuclear Station in Clarington, Ontario. While OPG is currently still spearheading the engineering design process for the Darlington project—and expects to make a construction decision by the end of 2024—it has already kicked off site preparation and submitted a License to Construct application to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. OPG is also finishing up a successful $13 billion mega-project refurbishment of the existing units at Darlington, which Lyash suggested could provide a lot of lessons for future BWRX-300 projects.
Poland, meanwhile, is one of the most carbon-intense nations in Europe, so it is keen on adding nuclear to decarbonize its power supply. Therefore, partnering with SGE made a lot of sense to Lyash. “That represents an international market,” he said. “Why is that important? Well, if you’re going to scale this, you have to scale it. You have to have a book of business. You have to have owners who are willing to build so that you get the investment in the supply chain and the workforce development to do it.”
Still, nuclear is not the only new generation TVA is pursuing. It also has plans to add at least 10,000 MW of new solar, as well as battery and pumped-hydro energy storage, and even some natural gas–fired generation to help bridge the gap as it phases out its coal generation by 2035. “We at TVA are very outcome focused, so we spend a lot of time talking about: ‘At the end of this trail, where is it we want to arrive at?’ ” Lyash said. “It’s about affordable energy that’s reliable and resilient, and low-carbon.” To reach the desired outcome, Lyash said it would take renewables, nuclear, storage, demand-side management, and energy efficiency all in the right mix.
To hear the full interview with Lyash, which includes more about TVA’s plans for the future, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:
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—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).