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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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