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NRC grants TVA early site permit for SMR nuclear power project at Clinch River

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently issued an early site permit for a small modular reactor project that the Tennessee Valley Authority is considering building at its Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

TVA is the first licensee to obtain such a permit within the U.S., although the utility has no immediate plans to build an SMR reactor at the Tennessee site.

An early site permit represents the NRC's finding that a site is suitable for a nuclear power plant. The permit is valid for up to 20 years and can be renewed for an additional 10-20 years. Early site permit holders require additional NRC permits and licenses before they can construct and operate reactors at such sites.

The commission said in its Dec. 17 order that it had reached its decision following an Aug. 14 hearing, in which the NRC determined that its staff's review of TVA's application was sufficient.

NRC staff on April 3 published the final environmental impact statement for the permit application and issued a final safety evaluation June 24. Staff reviews determined respectively that no environmental or safety issues were significant enough to preclude issuance of the early site permit.

TVA filed its permit application in May 2016 and has said it is interested in potentially building up to 800 MW of SMR capacity at the 935-acre Clinch River site. That site is owned by the U.S. government and managed by TVA.

Dan Stout, director of nuclear technology innovation at TVA, said in a Dec. 17 statement, "Although we have no plans to build at this time, this permit will give TVA flexible options to prepare for future energy needs." TVA is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy on the project, Stout said.

Rich Powell, executive director of conservative clean energy group ClearPath Action, said the NRC's authorization "establishes an important precedent for future advanced reactor emergency planning activities."

On Sept. 18, TVA President and CEO Jeff Lyash said that TVA will select an SMR design for the project in the next two years.

The permit allows a future license applicant at the Clinch River site "to request an emergency preparedness zone smaller than those found at current U.S. nuclear power plants," the NRC said. TVA had requested exemptions from regulatory requirements for a 10-mile radius emergency preparedness zone, instead proposing either a 2-mile zone or one delimited by the plant's site boundary, depending on the reactor design selected.

The commission's order approved those exemptions, but Commissioner Jeff Baran, a Democrat, dissented in part from the decision. Baran said that while he agreed that safety criteria for a 2-mile zone had been met, those for a potential site-boundary emergency preparedness zone had not.

Despite being the first U.S. licensee for an SMR early site permit, TVA is not the only company pursuing a small reactor project in the country. The NRC recently completed the fourth phase of review of the design certification application for NuScale Power LLC's SMR technology. NuScale's first customer, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is planning a 12-module SMR plant in Idaho that is slated for operation by the mid-2020s.

Joniel Cha is a reporter with S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts are owned by S&P Global Inc.