What you need to know about the nuclear fuel facility proposed for Oak Ridge

Officials break ground during a groundbreaking ceremony for the TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility (TF3) at the Horizon Center Industrial Park located off the Oak Ridge Turnpike in Oak Ridge on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.
Officials break ground during a groundbreaking ceremony for the TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility (TF3) at the Horizon Center Industrial Park located off the Oak Ridge Turnpike in Oak Ridge on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

The city of Oak Ridge is no stranger to the nuclear industry, but as a new company proposes setting up shop in East Tennessee to produce the next generation of commercial nuclear fuel, local elected officials have some questions.

TRISO-X, a subsidiary of X-Energy, announced last year it plans to set up a facility in Oak Ridge’s Horizon Center Industrial Park that would process and manufacture fuel for the newest nuclear reactors.

The company has applied for a 40-year license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to “possess and use special nuclear material," according to a presentation by the NRC at a public meeting on Jan. 25. The NRC is the federal agency in charge of regulating ”civilian use of radioactive materials,” including nuclear power plants.

As part of the licensing process, the NRC is holding a public comment period until Feb. 14. This is part of the federal agency’s environmental review process, which notifies them of any concerns or questions local elected officials or residents in the area might have.

Most speakers at the public event on Jan. 25 were in favor of the new facility and hoped both the NRC and TRISO-X would stay on schedule for the proposed facility.

Here’s more information about the site based on the meetings the NRC had with local elected officials and the public:

How do I submit a comment?

  • Visit http://www.regulations.gov and search for Docket ID: NRC-2022-0201

  • Email TRISOX-EIS@nrc.gov

  • Mail comments, with the subject line: Docket ID NRC-2022-0201, to Office of Administration, Mail Stop: TWFN-A60M, ATTN: Program Management, Announcements and Editing, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-0001

The deadline for comments is Feb. 14.

What will the facility make?

The federal government is currently investing in new, modernized nuclear power plants, one type of which is called a small modular reactor. Compared to traditional nuclear power plants, SMRs are intended to be cheaper, quicker to build, smaller in overall plant size and safer, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

About 20 companies are designing the new reactors, which include SMRs, according to the Department of Energy. Those future plants also will require newer fuel to generate energy.

This is where companies like TRISO-X come in. The proposed facility in Oak Ridge would manufacture a new, safer form of uranium-based fuel for future nuclear reactors. Additionally, the facility’s proposed design could “allow for additional manufacturing capabilities for a variety of fuel designs and reactors,” the NRC said in its presentation on Jan. 25.

The facility would be working with uranium oxide, which is a new type of fuel. In the United States, manufacturing commercial nuclear fuel has always used - and currently does - uranium hexafluoride, Dave McIntyre, spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

Of the two, uranium oxide is safer and much more stable in comparison, John Pelchat senior regional government liaison for the NRC, said after the public meeting.

The TRISO-X facility would take the uranium oxide and basically turn it into fuel pebbles which would then be shipped out to new nuclear reactors in the market that are compatible with the fuel type.

The NRC told local elected officials on Jan. 24 that the facility’s initial license request is for about eight metric tons of fuel, which could supply about 16 “advanced reactors.” The facility also plans to double its output in the 2030s, depending on market conditions, the NRC told officials.

The TRISO-X facility would ship out the fuel typically via trucks in specialized containers that would require a separate license from the NRC, the NRC told local elected officials on Jan. 24. The fuel would be tracked as it is being shipped.

Spokesman: Fuel produced wouldn't be dangerous before use

A hardhat with the Triso-X logo is seen at a groundbreaking ceremony for the TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility (TF3) at the Horizon Center Industrial Park located off the Oak Ridge Turnpike in Oak Ridge on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.
A hardhat with the Triso-X logo is seen at a groundbreaking ceremony for the TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility (TF3) at the Horizon Center Industrial Park located off the Oak Ridge Turnpike in Oak Ridge on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.

The fuel that would be generated by the TRISO-X plant is not considered “nuclear waste.” It is less radioactive and not physically hot enough to be dangerous, Dave McIntyre, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in an email to Knox News.

"You can stand next to unshielded 'fresh' fuel without harm. You cannot stand next to spent fuel if it’s unshielded. Until it is used in a reactor, it is not harmful," McIntyre said.

Planning ahead for future cleanup

East Tennessee - specifically in the city of Oak Ridge as well as Roane and Anderson counties - has a long history of being a center of development in science and technology in the nation. However, with that development has also come with years of cleanup and costs.

During a meeting with local elected officials at the Anderson County Courthouse on Jan. 24, local officials asked the NRC how the federal government can ensure that any waste generated by the TRISO-X plant will be cleaned up and local residents won’t be stuck with the bill years down the line.

In response, the NRC said that regulations now require companies like TRISO-X, if licensed, to come up with a decommissioning plan that would be up to safety and health standards for its facility that NRC would then review. The company would also have to put money for future decommissioning into a trust in advance so the money can grow over time. The company cannot touch that money other than for decommissioning.

This ensures that the facility won’t simply shut down, leaving no money to clean up anything left behind, an issue that Anderson County is specifically dealing with right now with an old nuclear waste site, known as American Nuclear, located near Oak Ridge.

“Having came on to commission and came in at a time where we're still dealing with cleanup of sites from, they've been abandoned since the '70s, it's nice to know that there's been laws and things put in place since then,” Anderson County commission Chair Josh Anderson said. “Anderson County, and Oak Ridge in particular … we're always going to be tied to the energy industry and the nuclear industry. That's all, it's just part of the history. It's going to be part of the future. So this is one of those things that we can't really get around but it's nice to know that we've got state and federal partners that won't let situations come up in the future like American Nuclear or something like that.”

What does the NRC’s review process involve?

The NRC is in early stages of its licensing process for the facility. If all goes according to schedule and the NRC does not find any issues, TRISO-X might receive its license in 2025. Right now, the NRC is drafting its safety and safeguards evaluation report and seeking comments for its environmental review.

This will not be the last time members of the public will be invited to comment on the review process. Once the NRC has completed and published its environmental scoping, it expects to issue a document called a  Draft Environmental Impact Statement by early 2024. Once the draft is published, the public will be able to comment again over at least 45 days. NRC plans to host another public meeting during that time as well.

Once NRC receives those comments it will respond to each one individually, which will then be published in its Final Environmental Impact Statement in 2025, after which it will issue its recommendation on whether to license the facility.

During the environmental review process, NRC will be looking at any impacts the site could have on local ecology, habitats, historic or archeological sites, etc. It also will consult with other federal and local agencies, such as the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and other interested parties like Native Tribes .

In addition to NRC’s requirements for the license, if TRISO-X is successful in getting its license it will have to meet additional standards for its operations.

The facility will require an air permit from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, Dorothy Wallheimer, corporate communications manager for X-Energy, said in an email to Knox News. The permit application is currently being drafted, and while scrubbers might be part of the facility’s design, Wallheimer said “filtration is the primary means of controlling air emissions.”

The facility also will be using water in its operations. The process water used at the plant would be recycled to ensure that the facility is not wasting any constituents or materials in its manufacturing process. “When further recycling is no longer possible, the remaining materials will be containerized and sent off-site to a licensed disposal facility appropriate for the type of waste,” Wallheimer said.

So obtaining this facility’s license and building it would take a few years.

What does this mean for the future of nuclear energy?

TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant located near Spring City, Tenn., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.
TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant located near Spring City, Tenn., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.

Power plants require upkeep, maintenance and a lot of upfront and continued costs to keep them running. But eventually, they become uneconomical for utilities to keep investing in. At the moment, some nuclear power plants across the country have outlived their projected life span but continue to be viable, Congressman Chuck Fleishmann, R-Chattanooga, said in an interview with Knox News earlier this month. And while this means customers are getting a return on their investment the longer the plants run, eventually the clock will run out.

In the next stage of the nuclear power industry, the federal government is looking at new fuel manufacturing sites like TRISO-X and new advanced reactor designs like small modular reactors to potentially be the future.

More:How a perfect storm of freezing cold and aging power plants led to rolling blackouts

Many commenters at the Jan. 25 meeting in Oak Ridge expressed their support for the new facility and hoped it would remain on schedule.

“We do ask you to support TRISO-X’s application for [a] license to use special nuclear material to manufacture … fuel in Oak Ridge. This first of its kind of facility plans to bring 400 quality jobs to the area and fulfill an important need in the nuclear arena. The fuel TRISO-X will make will power small modular reactors that represent our nuclear future. It may also be able to work with entities such as TVA to bring new energy solutions to our area and to the nation,” Christine Michaels, president of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce and city resident, said at the public meeting.

Nuclear energy is carbon-free and therefore is an attractive energy source to fight the climate crisis, according to its advocates. But it does produce waste and pose safety concerns that make residents across the country nervous. With the investment into new types of fuel and new types of reactors, the goal is for the industry to become safer and cheaper as a whole.

“With NRC’s diligent oversight and recognizing that this new fuel and even spent fuel is inherently safer than traditional models, we believe the project to be environmentally sound. We believe that the needed safety precautions will be taken working in concert with the city and its departments. We urge the NRC to make its review in the most thorough yet expedient - with the word expedient underlined - fashion to enable this project to advance through the process,” Michaels said.

Anila Yoganathan is a Knox News investigative reporter. You can contact her at anila.yoganathan@knoxnews.com, and follow her on Twitter @AnilaYoganathan. Enjoy exclusive content and premium perks while supporting strong local journalism by subscribing at knoxnews.com/subscribe.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Nuclear facility in Oak Ridge to make fuel for new nuclear plants