The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will invest in a major program that will explore the construction of multiple advanced nuclear reactors—starting with a GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 small modular reactor (SMR) at its Clinch River site in Tennessee.
TVA Board members during a meeting on Feb. 10 unanimously approved TVA’s “New Nuclear Program,” a broad new initiative that the utility describes as a “disciplined, systematic ‘roadmap’ for TVA’s exploration of advanced nuclear technology, both in terms of various reactor designs being proposed and potential locations where such facilities may be needed in the region to support future energy needs.”
The initiative notably makes TVA, which is a self-funded federal corporate agency and the largest public power utility in the U.S., one of first utilities in the nation to publicly commit to exploring the development of an advanced reactor fleet.
According to TVA CEO Jeff Lyash, the new program will pursue phased activities that will kick off with design and licensing of a potential BWRX-300 SMR at Clinch River, a 935-acre site in Roane County for which TVA holds the nation’s only early site permit (ESP) from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
However, “It’s important to note that it’s not a commitment to build,” Lyash underscored on Thursday. “We don’t have the information to make that commitment yet. We’re going to take this disciplined, phased approach, and in the next phase [of the program], funded by $200 million, we’ll deliver a plant design, an NRC license application, and a robust project plan.”
Lyash said that for now, TVA expects that phase to last about two to three years. “Importantly, in this next phase, the completion of design, licensing, estimating scheduling, and risk assessment work will support the informed decision at the next stage as to whether to proceed into construction-related activities,” he said. “Our goal here, to be clear, is to have a reliable, affordable, flexible and clean advanced reactor option deployed and operational in the 2032 timeframe at Clinch River.”
Under the program, TVA intends to build more than one reactor, Lyash noted. “It’s to demonstrate that the technology can be deployed at an acceptable cost and on a reliable schedule across our system at a scale that materially and positively supports our ability to meet the challenges of having low-carbon energy for the 2030s and beyond, beginning with the first project—clear-eyed about what it will take to make that happen,” he said.
Another Notch for the BWRX-300
TVA chose GE-Hitachi’s (GEH’s) BWRX-300 because it is based on light water reactor (LWR) technology, Lyash said. “While we will continue to support and examine all of the various SMR designs being proposed, we believe that light-water SMR designs, which are closely related to the current generation of TVA’s large nuclear units, are more mature and closer to commercial deployment within the next decade,” he said. “For that reason, we are currently in discussions with GE-Hitachi to support their BWRX-300 light-water SMR design, which will help inform a future decision about potential deployment.”
The BWRX-300 is a 300-MW boiling water reactor (BWR) that the Wilmington, N.C.–based GEH launched in 2017. The reactor design is the 10th evolution of GE’s BWR technology, and GEH says it represents “the simplest, yet most innovative BWR design since GE began developing nuclear reactors in 1955.” On its website, GEH also notes that the design is based on the Gen III+ 1,520-MW ESBWR, which the NRC certified in 2014. TVA spokesperson Jim Hopson confirmed to POWER that the known technical parameters of the BWRX-300 are within the potential site envelope included in the early site permit. “The early site permit has a maximum of 800 MW at Clinch River,” he noted.
Ontario Power Generation (OPG), a Crown corporation wholly owned by Ontario’s provincial government, also cited the reactor’s evolutionary benefits when it selected the BWRX-300 last December in a stiff competition for its much-watched utility-scale project. OPG is targeting a 2028 timeframe to begin operating that single-unit project. Progress on that project is ongoing. “We continue to advance the BWRX-300 and work with the Canadian nuclear power supply chain to support the deployment of the technology in Canada and around the world,” a GEH spokesperson told POWER on Feb. 9.
According to Lyash, TVA will continue to engage with other developers to explore the next generation of nuclear reactors. These include Kairos—with which TVA is partnering to demonstrate a low-power molten salt high-temperature reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee—as well as the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) awardees, X-energy and TerraPower, and NuScale, whose technology will be deployed at the 462-MWe Carbon-Free Power Project in Idaho.
GEH, notably, is also part of a core team, along with TerraPower, that is spearheading the demonstration of a 500-MW Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactor plant at PacifiCorp’s Naughton Power Plant site in Wyoming. That project is expected to be operational within the next seven years—by 2028—aligning with the ARDP schedule, as mandated by Congress.
Lyash said TVA’s pursuit of the BWRX-300 at Clinch River “will establish yet another pathway to the cost-effective and low-carbon future that we see.” However, he acknowledged that “initial deployment of any truly innovative technology carries financial and technical costs and risks.”
One way TVA will seek to mitigate these risks is “to engage with experienced and similarly committed partners.” On this effort, TVA expects to partner and collaborate with other utilities and entities “to bring a broad set of skills and experience resources to the program. That will also help us spread financial and technical risk. And when we’re successful, to share our collective experience for the benefit of others. We believe that this will create the best value for the investments that we’re going to make now,” he said.
While TVA told POWER that it’s still too early to speculate on total program costs, it suggested it was exploring recent incentives aimed at new nuclear. “We continue to work with the U.S. Department of Energy and our congressional delegation to explore all opportunities to potentially share costs that ultimately would move advanced nuclear technology forward to benefit the entire nation,” said Hopson.
Lyash: Decarbonization Requires Solutions Now
TVA’s decarbonization ambitions are a primary impetus for the new nuclear program, Lyash said. “Our aspiration is to reach net-zero by 2050, but turning that aspiration into execution … to drive that 80% reduction to net-zero requires honest, clear-eyed thinking and teamwork, and a strong commitment,” he said. “But the challenge is not merely driving out the last 20% of carbon emissions from the current system. It potentially involves up to a doubling of electricity production as society uses clean energy to decarbonize the broader economy through technologies like electric transportation, which we can see gaining momentum every day,” he said.
Currently, TVA operates three nuclear plants: the three-unit 3.3-GW Browns Ferry plant in Alabama; the two-unit 2.3-GW Sequoyah plant in Tennessee; and the two-unit 2.3-GW Watts Bar plant in Tennessee. All its units were placed in service between 1974 and 1982, except Watts Bar’s, which came online in 1996 and 2016 (Watts Bar Unit 2 was POWER’s 2018 Plant of the Year). Sequoyah 1 is licensed through 2040, and Unit 2, through 2041. Watts Bar 1 is licensed through 2035. Browns Ferry, its oldest nuclear plant, already has renewed 20-year NRC licenses that will allow the units to operate from 2033 to 2036. In 2019, TVA also wrapped up a $475 million extended power uprate at Browns Ferry to boost the plant’s output by 465 MW.
But while upgrades have been pivotal in boosting TVA’s nuclear’s share to 44% of its total generation output, TVA says the utility has been running them longer. “We’ve just had a great deal of operational success with our nuclear units. They are our largest source of carbon-free power, and they are a leading source of baseload 24-7 power,” Hopson told POWER last year.
“For TVA reliable and economic new nuclear generation is another key part of our aspiration to achieve net-zero by 2050, and we believe new nuclear technology will have a material impact on carbon reduction efforts across the nation,” Lyash said on Thursday. “We cannot meet the energy needs of tomorrow by just making small changes in the power system today. Nor can we fail to develop any of the potential pathways to success—renewables, long-duration storage, low-carbon fuels, carbon capture, and the expansion of nuclear power generation. We must begin to work towards solutions now at a programmatic level.”
During his Presidential address at the board meeting, Lyash revealed that the new program stems from TVA’s board-approved Strategic Intent and Guiding Principles Document, a document that highlights technologies TVA will pursue as it sets out to meet its long-term decarbonization strategy. The board’s vote during the Thursday meeting ratified approval of a related “disciplined programmatic approach for the development of new nuclear technology and its potential deployment,” beginning at Clinch River, he noted.
Jubilation From Industry
TVA’s announced commitment to new advanced nuclear builds predictably prompted jubilation from the nuclear industry.
“Advanced nuclear technology is perhaps the singularly most effective technology to address climate change and to provide reliable, cost-competitive, zero-carbon energy. Without nuclear energy, it will be realistically impossible to meet the numerous and ambitious goals set for carbon reduction,” said Bud Albright, president and CEO of the U.S. Nuclear Industry Council. “With TVA’s New Nuclear Program, they have taken a crucial step forward in showing the world that the U.S. intends to lead the way towards a cleaner and brighter energy future, and with American advanced nuclear technology, we will have the tools to do so.”
Maria Korsnick, president of trade group Nuclear Energy Institute, also applauded the ambitious New Nuclear Program. “The work that TVA is embarking on is an important step forward on a path towards a clean, reliable, and affordable energy future. Your commitment to explore advanced nuclear solutions will serve not only your customers, but also help the U.S. reach our collective goal for decarbonizing the electric sector,” she said.
Praise also came from the American Public Power Association (APPA). “TVA has a long history of leadership on nuclear energy, a history that is positioning them well for the future of reliable and affordable electricity that is a hallmark of public power in the Valley,” said APPA President and CEO Joy Ditto. “It’s exciting that TVA’s Board has approved the New Nuclear Program, which will allow TVA to further explore deploying an advanced nuclear reactor to provide clean baseload power to its public power and rural cooperative customers.”
The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a group that represents all the nation’s investor-owned utilities, also lauded TVA’s contribution to launching new advanced nuclear technology. “Deploying and demonstrating the next generation of 24/7 carbon-free technologies, including new advanced nuclear, is critically important to our industry’s efforts to deliver resilient clean energy to our customers. We applaud TVA for developing its New Nuclear Program and for its work to accelerate carbon reductions across the U.S. economy,” said EEI’s head Tom Kuhn.
—Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).
Updates: Adds background about TVA’s generation and nuclear fleet, details about the Clinch River site.