Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
May 17, 2016 | Tom Ballard

Jim Campbell explores nuclear opportunities for an innovation-driven region

ETEC-tekno(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column was written by Jim Campbell, President of the East Tennessee Economic Council. It cites how important this region has been to the nuclear industry as well as the opportunities forthcoming. As one example, there is a map that shows 97 different firms in this area involved in the nuclear space. You can review the map here {Final Nuclear map – Logos -rev 5 2 16-smaller}.)

Last week a gentleman interested in developing the manufacturing supply chain for a new type of nuclear power plant came to East Tennessee to explore opportunities. He represents one of several companies the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is talking with to explore deploying a small modular (factory built) reactor complex on the Clinch River Site in Oak Ridge. Several companies are interested in selling these smallish (by nuclear standards) power plants globally.

So why write about this subject in a column devoted to the fast paced world of innovation and entrepreneurship? The nuclear industry and the regulatory environment created to regulate it do not move fast.

But there is opportunity and there will be more opportunities in the years to come as the world looks at diverse energy sources for a growing global economy. These new power plants will also need new ways to distribute power, so smart grid technology and devices will be part of the mix. And there is also a need to secure power sources and the networks that move power around.

Plenty of opportunity for good ideas!

Last year the East Tennessee Economic Council, working with the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington D.C. (with the help of two interns from the University of Tennessee’s MBA program), did a survey of the nuclear industry in Tennessee. We identified 120 firms statewide that derive a portion of their income from the nuclear industry. Of those firms, 97 are located in the greater Knoxville/Oak Ridge area. These companies employ thousands of people and generate billions of dollars for the local economy.

The companies came in all forms. Manufacturers, engineering firms of all types, chemistry laboratories, instruments and controls, service and training companies were all in the mix. Concrete, something we never think much about, requires a special mix to be a part of a nuclear construction project—and we have companies like that in East Tennessee, too.

Obviously, the big players in the nuclear industry are built around the Department of Energy’s (DOE) complex in Oak Ridge. The Y-12 National Security Complex and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are the world’s center of excellence in uranium-based technology. The DOE environmental management program in Oak Ridge will be the first in the world to decommission a gaseous diffusion enrichment facility and return the land to productive uses.

TVA owns and operates four nuclear power plants, two in Tennessee.

UT, now a partner in the operation of ORNL, recognized decades ago that it needed to be a key workforce supplier for these operations, and created a nationally ranked nuclear engineering degree program. It’s outstanding.

The region is also a hot bed of the nuclear medicine business, which arose out of early work at ORNL and Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Companies like Siemens, Provision and ProNova, are using nuclear technology to design better ways to investigate and cure diseases. Clearly that is an area for growth and innovation in coming years.

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