The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has asked for public input to their Integrated Resource Plan.  Part of how they are soliciting input is through a series of public meetings.  The first of these was held in Murfreesboro, TN, on February 19.  Kurt Harris and I drove there and I gave this message to the assembled parties:

During my time at NASA I worked on solar power systems for satellites, and initially got very excited about solar technology, but it wasn’t hard to see the many challenges that solar power faced when used on Earth. I also learned about thorium reactor technology while at NASA. Thorium reactor technology was pioneered at ORNL about fifty years ago and they built prototype reactors of this technology. This thorium technology has remarkable promise to decarbonize TVA’s future generation portfolio. In TVA’s present plans, there’s no addition of new nuclear capacity and in one of the scenarios there’s the shutdown of Browns Ferry. As a Huntsville resident for 19 years, I’ve been very thankful for the reliable energy that Browns Ferry provides, particularly in adverse weather situations. The stored energy at the Browns Ferry site isn’t susceptible to interruption; it is a reliable energy source.

Reliability is an excellent attribute of nuclear energy, but this new form of nuclear energy can address concerns over responsiveness to changes in electrical load. It can easily accommodate changes in the load because in a normal (solid-fueled) nuclear reactor, the neutron poison xenon builds up and is trapped in the solid fuel, making it difficult to change load. In liquid-fueled reactors such as the thorium reactor, xenon comes out of their liquid fuel just like carbonation some out of a carbonated beverage. What that means is that the reactor can respond very, very rapidly to changes in electrical loads. This form of nuclear energy is versatile and is not restricted only to baseload applications. I think this is very important attribute because TVA’s IRP values versatility and responsiveness. It also uses a gas turbine rather than a steam turbine which enhances responsiveness.

Another aspect of this technology is that it has a minimal environmental footprint. I am troubled with the facile public promotion of solar and wind energy since they consume a lot of land. This is one thing in areas of the country that have lots of marginal lands, but in the Tennessee River Valley we have entirely beautiful lands, and it’s inescapable that the amount of power that you can generate per unit land is very low with wind and solar. One of the great things about nuclear energy is that it is a very dense form of energy. So I think that is a great attribute, and furthermore, we could be distributing these reactors to a lot of brownfield sites that TVA had which were former nuclear sites, or former coal sites, because all of those sites were tied into the grid, and that would further reduce the environmental impact of using this technology. So I’d very much like to encourage the committee to consider this technology.

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