CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Pushing ahead with ambitious nuclear plans, the Tennessee Valley Authority signed a letter of intent to become the nation's first electricity provider to build small modular reactors.
Spokesmen for the nation's largest public utility and Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy subsidiary Generation mPower in Charlotte, N.C., said Friday that the letter signed in late May outlines plans for building up to six of the mini reactors at TVA's vacant Clinch River site west of Knoxville in East Tennessee.
TVA spokesman Terry Johnson said the utility is pursuing possible development of a single small reactor to start operating by 2020. He said they would be built in pairs. Johnson said the small reactors each could supply enough power to support about 70,000 homes, about one-tenth of a large reactor.
The cost and who will pay it are not known.
Generation mPower President and CEO Ali Azad said in a statement Thursday that TVA plans to apply for a construction permit in 2012, while Generation mPower plans to apply for design certification in 2013. But TVA nuclear spokesman Ray Golden said it is still "not an absolute certainty we are going to do this."
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Roger Hannah said that those reviews would take several years and that a license application review would follow.
Hannah said the proposed mini reactor is the first for any NRC site.
A Babcock & Wilcox email Friday said that compared to large reactors that vary in size and design, the mPower reactor is about 80 feet tall and 15 feet wide at it largest point and weighs about 500 tons before being loaded with fuel.
TVA supplies power to about 9 million people in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. The utility is pursuing a long-range plan that calls for decreasing its reliance on coal and increasing use of nuclear power, renewable energy, natural gas, hydroelectric and conservation.
TVA Chief Operating Officer Bill McCollum said the utility sees "unique benefits that small modular reactor technology can present to the nuclear industry in the areas of economics and safety."
TVA is the nation's only utility currently building a reactor – a 1,200-megawatt Unit 2 at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant that is costing $2.5 billion and expected to be finished late next year. And officials plan to ask the governing board in August for the go-ahead to build a $4.7 billion reactor at TVA's Bellefonte Nuclear Plant site, which has been mothballed for decades in northeastern Alabama. Construction at that plant stopped in 1988, and much of the equipment was removed. More than $4 billion has already been spent there.
Knoxville-based TVA has five other existing reactors: three at the Browns Ferry Plant in north Alabama and two at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant at Soddy-Daisy near Chattanooga.
TVA has said the Clinch River site was approved for a nuclear plant in the 1970s. A mini reactor could help provide power to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy operations, which could allow for other federal funding.
Babcock & Wilcox spokesman Jud Simmons said the project could be designated to support DOE as part of its "green mandate."
Ed Lyman, a senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, testified last week before a U.S. Senate committee that the smaller reactors will not be safer or less expensive than traditional reactors.
Lyman said Friday that "TVA is somewhat insulated from the financial concerns that other utilities face because of its privileged position" as a quasi-federal agency. "I think the one thing that is puzzling is many other utilities around the world are at least taking a pause in the wake of the Fukushima accident to at least think about building nuclear plants."
He also said that the mini reactors are more expensive to operate than large reactors.
TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore has said TVA is monitoring the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant from a March 11 earthquake and tsunami. He has said there is no reason for TVA to delay moving ahead for the benefit of ratepayers and for the environment, saying nuclear power is safe and "cleaner than any other realistic alternative."