Governor voices support for small nuclear reactor in Oak Ridge

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for his State of the State address on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.
Gov. Bill Lee arrives for his State of the State address on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

In his State of the State address, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talked about his desire to revive an Oak Ridge project, the Clinch River site, for a small modular reactor park.

"We are working directly with TVA to formalize a long-term strategy so the Clinch River site can be part of powering America," Lee said. "If we’re going to have a real conversation about energy in America, it needs to be safe, cheap to produce, and reliable. I believe that conversation starts right here in Tennessee at the Clinch River site."

"Today, many may not realize that Tennessee derives more power from nuclear energy than from any other source," he said. "Nuclear power is clean energy that actually works for the private sector. It has enabled us to land major economic projects because not only is it clean, but it is also cheap to produce."

Jim Hopson, TVA public information officer, told The Oak Ridger in an interview that if it goes ahead, the project is intended to "demonstrate the feasibility" of a small modular reactor. Eventually, he said, it would be a "full working unit" to generate power for the power grid.

TVA is still pursuing some permits and approvals for the site. Hopson said TVA hopes to have a small modular reactor online by the 2030s, but he "wouldn't want to speculate on when construction would begin." He also said it would be "difficult to guestimate," how many people would work either building the plant or running it, due to it being different from current nuclear reactors.

"We know that the coal fleet is nearing the end of its viable life," Hopson said.

He said TVA is focusing on moving toward a carbon-free model of power generation, but renewable energy like wind, water and solar may have their limits. He said renewables are "not a 24/7 power source.

"The sun isn't always shining. The wind isn't always blowing," he said.

This reactor, if it goes ahead, would reportedly be the first of its kind built in the United States and one of the first in the world. Hopson said small modular reactors will be smaller than other types of reactors, and their parts could possibly be built more cheaply in factories rather than on site.

Compared to current reactors such as the pair at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, they would not have to run with full power all the time but could follow demand, which makes them ideal for filling in the gaps of when power generated by the sun and wind are not available. Also, they could be used for adding smaller amounts of power to the electrical grid as needed.

"We appreciate the governor’s words of support. Like the governor, we believe that advanced nuclear technology has an important role in accelerating our push toward decarbonization, both for TVA and the nation. We are continuing to evaluate the potential of Clinch River and hope to have some additional news in the near future," said Scott Brooks, also with TVA public relations.

TVA has proposed a technology park which would contain one or more advanced nuclear reactors with a cumulative electrical output not to exceed 800 megawatts. Brooks described the site as hosting a small modular reactor.

The U.S. Department of Energy has received $230 million from Congress to help fund the demonstration of advanced nuclear reactors, and one possible site for such a reactor is the TVA’s 935-acre Clinch River Nuclear Site in the Roane County portion of Oak Ridge, Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy said in 2020.

The site was prepared for the proposed Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project that Congress terminated in 1983.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRc) has authorized the issuance of an Early Site Permit for the site. The permit closes several site-related issues, including many environmental impacts, for small modular reactors at that location.

Brooks said there are a "litany of other permits" that the utility would need in order to start building.

TVA still hasn't decided whether it's pursuing the plan, Brooks said, or how many reactors the site would host.


The possible building of one or more reactors on the site has faced criticism. Some environmental groups have opposed the project, saying the reactors remain untested, unsafe and unneeded. Some citizens have also cited issues with karst terrain. Regarding those concerns about karst, Hopson said the reactor will have to meet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's standards.

Another criticism from environmentalists involves whether these smaller reactors should also have a smaller emergency planning zone around them. Hopson said a final decision on that hasn't been made, but because the new plants would be smaller, have more passive safety systems, and be more self-contained, it is likely their emergency planning zones would be smaller that Watts Bar's 10 miles, which is standard.

Ben Pounds is a staff reporter to The Oak Ridger. Call him at (865) 441-2317, email him at and follow him on Twitter @Bpoundsjournal. Local writer Carolyn Krause contributed to this story as did The Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: Governor voices support for small nuclear power reactor in Oak Ridge