Small Modular Reactors Could Help With U.S. Energy Needs

By U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann
October 2011

In 1984, less than a decade after the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI), renowned Oak Ridge scientist Alvin Weinberg and several colleagues released a futuristic research report predicting the dawn of a second nuclear era and describing the conditions that would make it successful. The report recommended that a public and private partnership be established to design and build a prototype standardized nuclear reactor to be located in clusters. Low-level wastes and spent fuel should be stored onsite on land permanently dedicated to nuclear power.

A second nuclear era has yet to materialize but today Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology has positioned the power industry to change the nuclear landscape in the U.S. and overseas.

SMRs are among the most advanced and promising reactor designs currently under development by the nuclear and energy industries. These smaller reactor concepts, 300 megawatts or less, offer many benefits over 1,000 megawatt traditional reactors, including improved safety and affordability. Experts say SMRs could meet our country’s increasing domestic power needs while leading the way on energy efficiency and cleaner air.

In an era of considerable financial uncertainty, utility companies would need less upfront capital, pay lower and shorter financing costs and won’t require long term predictions for electricity demand. In short, managing investment risks enhances the value of SMRs.

In addition to lower cost, SMRs lower the operational risk for power companies. Design vulnerabilities of large nuclear plants that resulted in a total reactor loss at TMI are much less serious for small reactors. Lower power, smaller size and standardized construction all contribute to less jeopardy for nuclear operators. Since the reactors can be assembled partially in a controlled factory environment and shipped onsite for final construction, vendors say the cost and quality of construction will be better than other reactor designs.

In a post-Fukushima world, safety is still the number one public issue for nuclear power. Some SMR developers plan to build their reactors in underground bunkers to improve safety and security. SMRs have simple, “passive safety” designs, a lower power level and require less cooling after shutdown making them potentially safer than currently operating reactors.

American nuclear power has an exceptional track record of safety with more than 50 years of commercial nuclear energy production in the United States with no radiation injuries or deaths. Many energy industries can’t make similar claims. In our worst nuclear incident, no one in or outside the plant was harmed.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Babcock & Wilcox Company (B&W) subsidiary Generation mPower have signed an agreement to develop up to a six pack of SMRs at TVA’s Clinch River site in my congressional district in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The 1,300 acre location was previously developed for a nuclear breeder reactor and has a good historical record of environmental data. Suitability studies are underway as well as initial site characterization. TVA and B&W have developed a solid business case and have a long history of working together.

The proposed SMR project at the Clinch River site is located adjacent to the Oak Ridge federal reservation near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the B&W Y-12 National Security Complex, both high demand users of electricity. TVA has indicated one reactor would supply power to TVA customers, and another would power Oak Ridge federal facilities. TVA said it could add more modules later as needed.

As a next step, TVA and Generation mPower must now prepare a construction permit application for submission to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Generation mPower is currently on track to deploy its first small reactor by 2020. This could be the first application received by the NRC for a small modular reactor, and the nation’s first SMR.

The timely implementation of small reactors could position the United States on the cutting edge of nuclear technology. As the world moves forward in developing new forms of nuclear power, the United States should set a high standard in safety and regulatory process. Other nations have not been as rigorous in their nuclear oversight with far reaching implications. 

As we consider the disastrous events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, it is imperative that power companies and regulatory agencies around the world adequately ensure reactor and plant safety to protect the public. Despite terrible tragedies like the natural disaster in Japan, nuclear power is still one of the safest and cleanest energy resources available. 

The plan to administer these small reactors would create technologically advanced U.S. jobs and improve our global competitiveness. Our country needs quality, high paying jobs. Increasing our competitive edge in rapidly advancing industries will put the United States in a strategic position on the forefront of expanding global technologies in the nuclear arena. 

If we delay the implementation of SMRs here at home, we are at risk of being eclipsed by other nations. If we don’t make them in America, we will be buying them overseas. By deploying SMRs, we could be taking the first steps in making significant headway to truly gaining energy independence.

Many in Congress strongly support advances in American nuclear power. The U.S. House of Representatives fully funded a Department of Energy program to cost share partnerships for two SMR designs where near-term NRC licensing can be completed. But the program stalled in the Senate where a few influential senators blocked it.

While the nuclear renaissance described by Oak Ridge scientist Alvin Weinberg didn’t happen, we have another chance to revive his vision. The United States can lead the world on Small Modular Reactors, provide clean, safe nuclear power to help meet the ever increasing energy demands, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and provide quality jobs. That is a win for the nation and the world.

Congressman Chuck Fleischmann is a conservative Republican who represents the 3rd District of Tennessee. Fleischmann received his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Illinois. He received both Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude honors. He then went to the University of Tennessee law school, where he received his Doctor of Jurisprudence.

For 24 years, Fleischmann and his wife ran a small business together in Chattanooga after they both graduated from law school at the University of Tennessee.

He has served on the board of the National Craniofacial Association and on the board of the Cherokee Area Council of Boy Scouts of America. Fleischmann also served as the president of the Chattanooga Bar Association and chairman of the Chattanooga Lawyers Pro Bono Committee.

He serves on three committees, and both are vitally important to the residents of the 3rd District:

  • House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
  • House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
  • House Committee on Natural Resources

Fleischmann and his wife, Brenda, live in Ooltewah, Tennessee, with their three boys.

U.S. Rep Fleischmann

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann