Tennessee is betting nuclear energy will make a comeback.
The state, which hosted labs that helped split the atom during World War II, has joined the race to develop and deploy the first commercial-grade variant of a scalable nuclear reactor that promises to provide an important piece of the nation’s green energy network.
After appropriating $50 million for nuclear energy development grants in the state’s new budget, Gov. Bill Lee a week ago signed Executive Order 101, creating a 15-member Nuclear Advisory Board to craft a new nuclear policy for the state.
Tennessee is “ready-made” to advance new commercial nuclear technology, in part through supporting a plan by the U.S. government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority to develop and prove the concept of a Small Modular Reactor, or SMR, with General Electric.
The TVA supplies electricity to 153 local power companies serving 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states. It operates three traditional nuclear power generating stations, including two in Tennessee.
As demand and supply chain issues make solar, wind, and other traditional green energy options more costly, SMRs are making nuclear power cheaper and more accessible, said TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler.
Nuclear also offers zero-carbon energy production at a steady predictable rate.
“Renewables are variable and non-dispatchable and we need dispatchable power when the winds not blowing or the sun’s not shining,” he said “They actually complement renewables and get us to get to that aspirational goal of zero carbon by 2050.”
The TVA currently produces 60% of its electricity from renewables and under a new plan issued this year would use “a fleet of highly cost-effective” SMRs to get to 80% carbon reduction by 2035.
It approved $200 million in its new nuclear plan last year in pursuit of the goal, and while no commercial-grade model currently exists, the industry is very close, Fielder said, benefiting from years of federally funded research and supported by recently passed infrastructure and energy incentives.
The new reactors are customized for use with existing energy infrastructure and commercial implementation is already on its way, having drawn a great deal of private support over recent years. The TVA’s partnership with GE will take the company’s current SMR prototype and work on figuring out how to deploy it on public energy grids.
The TVA has already selected a site for the project and hopes for a marketable version sometime before 2030.
The project is still in the early permit approval process; if successful, Tennessee would be the first nation to deploy a commercial SMR.
Other states are also in pursuit of that title, including neighboring Virginia where authorities are also pursuing SMR development in a public-private collaboration.