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First “Small Modular” Nuclear Reactors Planned for Tennessee via National Geographic

Near the banks of the Clinch River in eastern Tennessee, a team of engineers will begin a dig this month that they hope will lead to a new energy future.

They’ll be drilling core samples, documenting geologic, hydrologic, and seismic conditions—the initial step in plans to site the world’s first commercial small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) here. (See related quiz: “What Do You Know About Nuclear Power?”)

Once before, there was an effort to hatch a nuclear power breakthrough along the Clinch River, which happens to meander through the U.S. government’s largest science and technology campus, Oak Ridge, on its path from the Appalachian Mountains to the Tennessee River.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government and private industry partners sought to build the nation’s first commercial-scale “fast breeder” reactor here, an effort abandoned amid concerns about costs and safety. Today, nuclear energy’s future still hinges on the same two issues, and advocates argue that SMRs provide the best hope of delivering new nuclear plants that are both affordable and protective of people and the environment. And even amid Washington, D.C.’s budget angst, there was bipartisan support for a new five-year $452 million U.S. government program to spur the technology.

The first project to gain backing in the program is here on the Clinch River at the abandoned fast breeder reactor site, where the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public utility in the United States, has partnered with engineering firm Babcock & Wilcox to build two prototype SMRs by 2022.

SMRs are “a very promising direction that we need to pursue,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at his confirmation hearing in April. “I would say it’s where the most innovation is going on in nuclear energy.” (See related story: “Small Town Nukes.”)

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Experts say such reactors also could be removed as a unit, standardizing waste management and recycling of components. SMRs also can be designed with “air cooling,” so that they do not require the large withdrawals of water that today’s current nuclear (and coal) plants need to condense steam.

Christofer Mowry, president and chief executive officer of B&W mPower, said his company’s prototype, currently being tested at a facility in Lynchburg, Virginia, contains all of the components and safety features of a top-of-the-line, full-scale nuclear facility in a module about the size of a Boeing 737 passenger jet.

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