TVA Backs Firm Exploring Small Nuclear Reactors; Critics Bristle

Published on
by
the Tennessean

TVA Backs Firm Exploring Small Nuclear Reactors; Critics Bristle

by
Anne Paine

TENNESSEE - Small nuclear reactors — like
a mini-car versus a Hummer — are on the drawing board of the nuclear
industry, which has been hard-pressed to get financing for the
standard-size models.

The
Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to help one nuclear power
company, Babcock & Wilcox of Lynchburg, Va., gain certification for
such a scaled-down version.

The
reactors would be a tenth of the normal size and suitable for a
community of 100,000 residents. The atom-splitting operations and
radioactive waste would be stored underground, which advocates say
offers more protection from airplane sabotage by terrorists.

TVA,
which provides electricity for Tennessee and parts of six other states,
has signed a non-binding agreement to assist the company and is
designating an employee to investigate the feasibility of building a
small reactor near Oak Ridge.

"It's part of TVA's interest in looking at different options going forward," said Terry Johnson, a TVA spokesman.

About $1 million may be spent by TVA through the next fiscal year on the investigation, he said.

TVA,
which is building a new reactor at its Watts Bar plant, has its finger
in nuclear propositions with others, too, offering property in Alabama
and assisting in licensing of a newly designed, standard-size nuclear
plant with a consortium of public and private utilities.

Critics voice concerns

Nuclear power is praised for
not releasing greenhouse gases like coal-burning plants, but many
critics say TVA should be more focused on the possibilities of energy
conservation and alternative energy sources, including wind and solar.

Some
call the small reactor yet another "pie in the sky" idea from a
desperate nuclear industry that TVA and the U.S. Department of Energy
are enabling.

"This
is like the 'too cheap to meter' talk from before," said Arjun
Makhijani, president of the nonprofit Institute for Energy and
Environmental Research in Maryland. "The newest reactor is always the
greatest thing since sliced bread."

"We've always been told that nuclear reactors are economical."

These
125-megawatt or less reactors — compared with the standard
1,000-megawatt or larger units — don't offer the economy of scale that
could make costs more reasonable, he said.

"I
simply do not believe that reactors properly designed with adequate
safety systems would be cheaper than large reactors. You have to worry
about if there are leaks. You have to worry about containment."

"What
will be the cost of guarding these reactors? All these things are being
said about the safety and attractiveness of these reactors without a
single one having gone through licensing with the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission."

Backers are bullish

Chris Mowry, president and
chief executive of B&W Modular Nuclear Energy LLC within Babcock
& Wilcox, said small reactors are no far-fetched idea.

"We've
decided to use the best in class of proven technologies and not try to
introduce anything revolutionary to this," he said.

It's the same type of reactor found in some places around the country today, but smaller and underground.

"The
safety and performance has been incredible," Mowry said of nuclear
reactors. "You don't need new technology. What's needed is something
that's more affordable and makes the power plants accessible to
municipalities."

Small modular reactors could be built one at a time in clumps as needs grew — kind of like Legos or building blocks, Mowry said.

In
some states, cities already co-own power plants with utilities or other
entities. The Tennessee General Assembly passed a new law this year
that would allow TVA distributors in a nonprofit corporation to build
and own power plants.

Alexander on board

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander,
R-Tenn., has proposed that 100 new nuclear reactors be built in this
country and supports the small reactors.

"If
we start building small reactors, that could accelerate the building of
reactors because utility companies wouldn't have to invest such large
amounts of money," he told the National Press Club in mid-July.

The Union of Concerned Scientists considers larger reactors more practical.

"It
makes more sense to have it centralized as much as possible so you
don't have reactors dispersed all over the place that would be a
nightmare to license, inspect and try to protect," said Ed Lyman,
senior staff scientist in the Global Security program with the Union of
Concerned Scientists.

"Reactors require a very high degree of vigilance, maintenance and inspection."

A small 125-megawatt reactor is roughly estimated to cost about $750 million dollars, versus a large one at $10 billion or more.

Expanding the market

The Oak Ridge National
Laboratory has been researching the possibilities of smaller reactors,
particularly for countries not currently using nuclear power.

"This
is of great interest to them," said Daniel Ingersoll, senior program
manager for ORNL Nuclear Technology Programs. "Their total grid
capacity wouldn't support a large unit."

In
this country, the smaller reactors could act something like the sports
cars of nuclear power plants, more flexible in their ability to start
and stop quickly as needed to meet energy demands, he said.

The
U.S. Department of Energy has funded research at Oak Ridge as it tries
to help get the first wave of smaller plants off the ground, making the
move more risk-neutral for vendors.

One
hurdle will be approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which
is busy with licensing requests from TVA and others for new designs of
standard-size plants.

B&W
is among companies trying to muster support for designs of small
reactors so that the NRC might put in the time needed to review their
proposals.

"The
agency has said our resources are best expended on projects that have
the best likelihood of leading to an end product that is going to
benefit the nation," said NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.

"If
we get to a point where small-reactor vendors actually have a stable of
customers that have in a concrete way committed to those small-reactor
designs, that makes it much more feasible for the NRC to start devoting
resources toward reviewing the designs."

The
Senate Appropriations Committee, of which Alexander is a member, has
issued a report attached to the Senate version of the budget bill that
would push the NRC in that direction.

It
says it expects the commission to use any carryover funds it has "to
support licensing" of new reactor designs, including modular reactors.

B&W is drawing the backing needed to make its small reactor a reality, Mowry said.

"Having
TVA supportive of this, and having them review the Clinch River site as
a possibility, is very important for us," Mowry said.

A consortium of municipalities and utilities in the Southeast, which Mowry said he could not yet name, is part of the effort.

The
NRC has not yet received a license application for a small reactor, but
Mowry said his group expects to file one in two years.

An NRC review could take several years.

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