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August 02, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Federal, state and industry officials outline opportunities and challenges for nuclear in the region

The fifth annual “Nuclear Opportunities Workshop” wraps up its two-day run with discussions about workforce, supply chain, and funding.

Is nuclear the next big economic development play for Tennessee and the Oak Ridge region? The short answer is it could be.

That’s certainly the opportunity that was explored during the fifth annual “Nuclear Opportunities Workshop” that concluded its two-day run on August 2 with more than 450 people registered. And it is certainly something that is being actively contemplated by federal and state officials who spoke on the second day of the event organized by the East Tennessee Economic Council.

The region has an abundance of assets from one of the top nuclear engineering programs in the country at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville to research underway at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), uranium expertise at the Y-12 National Security Complex, and a number of nuclear-related companies taking up residence in the Heritage Center that once housed the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The challenges to success include a skilled workforce, a robust supply chain, and funding.

During their separate presentations, both Third District Congressman Chuck Fleischmann and Stuart McWhorter, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, talked about the new Tennessee Nuclear Energy Advisory Council that was created by Governor Bill Lee’s Executive Order 101 and the $50 million in funding that is part of the FY24 state budget to grow the nuclear industry.

Fleischmann said the 22-member group – more than one-half from East Tennessee – would have its first meeting next week, and he felt a sense of “dynamism, optimism, and opportunity” for the nuclear industry. At the same time, the Congressman warned attendees that they should not “take your eyes off the ball,” because Tennessee is playing in an international competition.

During his lunchtime presentation, McWhorter discussed the Executive Order and the charge to the Council. By the end of the year, the group is expected to deliver a preliminary report that contains at least an analysis of three things:

  • Regulatory, workforce, or education barriers that exist and would impede the creation and expansion of nuclear energy facilities in Tennessee;
  • Funding opportunities for state government, local governments, and the private sector; and
  • Opportunities for the state to harness existing and emerging technologies.

By October 31, 2024, the Council must deliver its final report that will address its findings in six core areas:

  • Recommended legislative, policy, and budgetary changes to address regulatory, workforce, or education barriers to the creation and expansion of nuclear energy facilities in the state;
  • Recommended funding opportunities for state government, local governments, and the private sector;
  • Recommended economic opportunities for a vibrant nuclear energy ecosystem;
  • Identified siting considerations;
  • Recommended storage and waste practices that continue the State’s long history of protecting Tennessee’s environment; and
  • Recommended federal actions that the state should pursue with federal partners and agencies.

McWhorter said the goal is to better understand how to “create a vibrant nuclear ecosystem and set the stage for how the state moves forward.”

As far as the $50 million fund designed to incentivize nuclear companies to come to Tennessee or start here, he acknowledged that enterprises that can benefit from the investment might be very different (e.g., early-stage start-ups) from those that are eligible for the department’s longstanding FastTrack program.

“We’re ready to get those dollars out,” McWhorter said, but added, “We will be creative in how we allocate them.”

UT-Battelle Makes an Investment

Before a panel on workforce development in the morning, Jeff Smith, ORNL’s Interim Director, announced that UT-Battelle, managing contractor of the lab, was making a $100,000 contribution to help launch a Nuclear Technology Program at Roane State Community College. That comes on the heels of an announcement earlier this year that ORNL was working with Pellissippi State Community College on a new Chemical Radiation Technology pathway under its Associate of Applied Science in General Technology degree.

According to Smith, the investment decisions came soon after he became Interim Director in January and asked one of those probing questions for which he is well-known: “If we want to do something from a workforce perspective, what would we do?” The answer to that fundamental question was the graphic that appeared at the top of this article and included everything from medical isotopes to nuclear security, power plants, and fusion energy.

UT-Battelle’s dollars will purchase instruments, sources, and tools for Roane State’s Nuclear Measurements Lab.

Smith concluded the ceremonial presentation of a large check to Roane State President Chris Whaley with this challenge to those in attendance: “Find your place and role on the map.”

Kairos Makes Another Announcement

Kairos Power, which announced just a month ago that it was expanding its commitment in Oak Ridge with a Hermes 2 reactor, made another big announcement during the conference.

“Aligned with the company’s rapid iterative development approach, Kairos Power has made the strategic decision to build the third iteration in our Engineering Test Unit series – ETU 3.0 – at our site in Heritage Center,” explained Edward Blandford, Kairos Power’s Chief Technology Officer. He was following-up on a mention that Lou Martinez Sancho, the company’s Vice President for Strategy and Innovation, made during an August 1 panel discussion.

“This non-nuclear integrated test platform will include learnings from Albuquerque-based ETU 1.0 and ETU 2.0 while mirroring the design of the Hermes demonstration reactor. ETU 3.0 will give us a head start on developing our local supply chain in Oak Ridge and advancing the learning curve for nuclear construction prior to Hermes,” Blandford added. “We will be issuing a request for proposals this fall for a lead construction firm and look forward to building relationships with local partners to make ETU 3.0 and future nuclear iterations a success.”

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