Small nuclear reactor revolution starts in Roane County

9:38 AM, Nov 30, 2012   |    comments
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The federal government wants to shrink the size of nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants in the United States.  The hope is to develop a reactor design that will revolutionize the way nuclear plants are constructed. 

The Department of Energy announced it will co-fund a couple of projects aimed at designing and developing small modular reactors (SMRs).

One of the two projects to build a miniature scalable nuclear power plant will happen right here in East Tennessee.  Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) received the award in partnership with TVA and Bechtel.  The TVA small nuclear plant will have four reactors using B&W's "mPower" SMR design.

The current picture of nuclear power in the United States usually involves a couple of enormous cooling towers along a lake, a large concrete building that houses a reactor, and a unique custom-designed reactor that was assembled at the plant.  The large nuclear reactors generally produce more than 1,000 megawatts of power.

In contrast, the SMRs will be a standardized design built and assembled in a factory.  These prefabricated reactors will then be sold "off the shelf" to utility companies and remain small enough to be shipped via rail or barge.  TVA said the SMRs will be about 20% as large as current reactors, produce about 180 megawatts, and hopefully carry a price tag that is equally reduced.

Utility companies can purchase as many of the SMRs as needed for their particular plant.  The refueling cycle for the more efficient SMRs will be once every four years as opposed to the current schedule of once every 18 months for large reactors.

The Roane County site won the race to become one of the two project sites because it had a head start.  The location will be along the Clinch River where plans to build a breeder reactor started in the 1970s.  The Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project was scrapped due to Congressional budget cuts in 1983.

"It's in the city of Oak Ridge portion of Roane County.  The Clinch River Breeder Reactor was mothballed and not started," said Ron Woody, county executive for Roane County.  "The site had been prepped and it had its environmental impact studies."

Woody said the excitement surrounding the SMR plant extends far beyond Roane County and East Tennessee.

"This is hopefully going to be a revolution in how we produce nuclear power in this country.  To have something that we can make entirely in this country and then ship in smaller packages will have a big impact.  There are some remote locations in Alaska and some of our islands that have to be powered, but they were too small or remote for nuclear to be a real possibility.  We're excited about it.  It's good for Roane County. It's good for our nation as we try to solve our energy crisis," said Woody.

The goal is to have the designs finished and plant constructed by 2022.  The electricity from the Roane County plant will go to the TVA grid, but be used primarily to power DOE sites such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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