Rep. Chuck Fleischmann on East Tennessee advances in nuclear
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, was named chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development subcommittee on Monday. He sat down with Knox News on Tuesday to discuss where the country is headed on nuclear energy and weapons, and how East Tennessee plays a key role in nuclear science.
The subcommittee allocates funding under the House Appropriations Committee to agencies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Defense’s civilian operations and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Nuclear as an energy source tends to create mixed reactions from the general public. What role does it play in the future of our electric grids in the United States?
It’s an excellent question, and I want to address that from a local Tennessee perspective, from an American national perspective. But I think I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about where the world is going with nuclear because all of these things are intertwined. And I’m very involved in in all of these. First and foremost, our great friends at TVA fortunately produce about 42% of their energy through nuclear power. It’s a history of success, it’s a present of success and it will be a future of success.
TVA, along with partners specifically GE Hitachi, will be actually working on a design for a modern nuclear reactor. So the nuclear portfolio in the United States is strong. It’s clean, it’s efficient, and in order for the United States to reach its clean energy goals, and this is something with bipartisan support, and administration support. There’s a lot I disagree with this administration but Secretary Granholm has made her commitment to nuclear – not only existing nuclear but new nuclear – very clear, very strong and in an agreement with us who promote nuclear.
If I may, nationally, nuclear is doing very well. It’s a part of many utilities’ portfolio, whether they are private or public.
But the new nuclear portfolio in America and around the world are focused on smaller nuclear plants which are easier to build, less expensive to build, easier to license, much, much more clearly safe from the fuel standpoint, and the like. And the United States is poised to lead in this role, again, with companies like GE Hitachi, companies like NuScale, X-energy, TerraPower.
So it might be a light water reactor, it might be a molten salt reactor, but that is that is critically important. Now the real problem we are lagging behind the rest of the world. Our adversaries – I’ll be specific, the Russians and Chinese – are leading in this race to bring nuclear power to other countries and themselves. Our allies, South Korea is actually ahead of us in bringing this technology to other countries.
So we’ve actually got some catching up to do. We have the best technology largely because of places like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which have led in a lot of this research. The big big problem is we do not have the financial tool implemented in place to actually effectuate America’s nuclear renaissance in bringing our models to the world.
The Russians and the Chinese will go in and finance these, build these, run these, and we have got to find a way to provide an incentive financially for these countries to go with America. They want to go with America. They don’t want to go with China and Russia. But sometimes by necessity, and I mean by financial necessity, they go that way.
Some of the public have concerns about safety and aren’t sure what to feel about nuclear here in East Tennessee. What are some things that are being done here that is modernizing the nuclear reactors that we’re going to see in the future?
Well, the existing American fleet of older larger nuclear power plants are safe or secure, and have in many instances, outlived their … projected life by 10 or 20 years and are still viable. We need to keep them up and running until we make this transition.
The United States government, with support of the House, support of the Senate and support of several administrations, both Democratic and Republican, has made a tremendous investment in nuclear. And the key will be what will the designs be that will be chosen. The Department of Energy under President Trump, under Secretary (Dan) Brouillette, made a decision to award to X-energy and TerraPower two of the large contracts, and I applaud that. But GE Hitachi has a fantastic model that the Canadians are looking at using and will actually deploy in Ontario. And this is going to be the model that TVA has chosen to go with.
So there are several viable technologies out there. These generally are all uranium-based or heavy water-based technologies with either gas, water or molten salt coolants. All of these designs are viable. The challenge is to get one up and get one built. Ten years ago, I was speaking with Secretary Moniz about this; we had hoped to have one up and running by the late 2020s. I don’t think that will happen now.
And we’re gonna have to look at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC, which we want a safe, strong nuclear portfolio. As you mentioned, the public has questions about it, but sometimes (the NRC is) overly cumbersome, and that impedes the moving forward of a lot of these designs. And what that does, it allows other countries and other competitors to move ahead of us in that space.
In the press release announcing your chairmanship, you mentioned the need to modernize the nuclear stockpile. Do you mind expanding on this? What specifically with the stockpile needs to be modernized and is there a role East Tennessee organizations like ORNL or TVA are playing in that process?
We have to make a delineation between civil nuclear and the weapons program, and the answer is yes, if I may, on the weapons side, and that would be the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, and also its sister plant, the Pantex plant in Texas.
There is a triad: there is the Navy side with the nuclear submarines, there is the land-based missiles and then of course, the Air Force has the airbase missiles, but when I went to Congress, I did not realize that our nuclear stockpile, our weapons stockpile, needed to be modernized, and we are currently doing this. We do this in a very strong way, in a very bipartisan, bicameral way to keep our nation’s nuclear stockpile up with our adversaries, specifically, China and Russia, so that we know that it is strong and is ready and it is a deterrent.
To address that further, the uranium processing facility which will replace the Y-12 facility, I was here when we we did the groundbreaking a decade ago that is on track now to be completed. Despite the fact that ORNL is the premier civil science lab, they do about 15% or 20% of their work in weapons to coordinate with Y-12 and the National Nuclear Security Administration. So it is a group team effort but the answer is East Tennessee and Oak Ridge is critically important in this endeavor.
On the civil side, we are seeing a tremendous amount of research in literally every area. And I will say this, especially in fusion, which is completely different from fission, but ORNL has been the nation’s leader in fusion research for quite some time. And with the Biden administration’s strong push in agreement with the people like myself, I’ve had these conversations on fusion. We’re going to see a lot more effort in the fusion area and Oak Ridge is going to lead as well.
East Tennessee has been a corridor for nuclear research since World War II. During that time a lot of waste has been generated from nuclear processes, and local governments are still finding these areas in need of cleanup. I understand Anderson County has specifically reached out to your office about a site in their county, known as American Nuclear. Is there a possibility we might see some funding or a process to find ways to clean up these sites, whether that’s in East Tennessee or across the nation?
This is what I lead on nationally. We are putting billions of dollars and have been for years under Democratic and Republican administrations through Democratic and Republican control of the House. I chaired the nuclear cleanup caucus. So that you know, we have for decades put hundreds of millions of dollars in nuclear cleanup. We have cleaned up legacy buildings. We have cleaned up the soil and water. We have done this on a grand scale. I also lead on this all across the country, and your readers need to know this.
As a result of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War rush to keep up with our adversaries, in the past we were not careful about the way in which we produced nuclear weapons. It exists in buildings, it exists in the soil. In Oak Ridge that is in terms of mercury, but this is an ongoing multibillion dollar endeavor that has actually been ongoing, in Oak Ridge, in Savannah River, in Hanford, Washington, where we have a couple 100 tanks filled with liquid plutonium waste, some of which are leaking.
So there’s a huge budget, and it is the third and perhaps most important leg of the stool of what we do at Oak Ridge. And let me put this in better perspective: we are taking down buildings, we are cleaning up soil, we are cleaning up the water and what we do when we clean that up, Oak Ridge is redeveloping, putting new businesses in there, putting new nuclear businesses in there. The K-25 plant, which was the largest building in the world, from the Manhattan-era project, was taken down under time, under budget and is totally clean.
The great news is we’re doing it; the sad news is we probably have about 30, 40 years more to get that done.
I also understand the committee oversees the Tennessee Valley Authority. Is there anything specific to TVA’s current actions or research that you might be interested in funding at the moment?
I do work hand in hand with TVA. (CEO) Jeff Lyash has been, in my view, one of the best directors I’ve seen over any public utility. He meets with me on a regular basis, he meets with our leaders, both Republican and Democratic in the House and Senate and articulates a vision to get us to clean energy. And we have less expensive, reliable power. Yes, we recently had some brownouts and things like that are actually planned but the reality is we are very fortunate in the valley to have a utility like TVA that is forward thinking.
But TVA has not received any federal funds since the ’90s. A lot of people don’t realize this. They stand on their own. They have an outstanding portfolio that is now fiscally responsible. When I went to Congress they were up against their debt limit. And they were going to have to go to Congress to raise their debt limit. They’re basically a federal corporation. So they are independent. But yes, we work hand in hand with them on the new nuclear portfolio on other forms of energy. And we encourage them to work in the area of nuclear power.
I want to see TVA actually put a modular nuclear reactor at Clinch River, a smaller, easier to build, easier to operate nuclear power plant at Clinch River. And I’ll tell you this, you can’t build one; you need to plan to build 100. So because we can market these to the world, and if you build one it’s too expensive, the prototypes are going to be much more expensive, but as you build the 10th, 20th, 100th the price drops.
And I do believe America can lead because if we do not the Russians and the Chinese are already in the space, they want to lead in this space and it gains some a lot of geopolitical gains, that we really should be trying to to gain a foothold in. I’ve had countries all over the world say I want to do business with America, but America is just not open for nuclear business. I want to change that.
More on Fleischmann’s focus on East Tennessee in Congress:
I think I’m the best person (for this position) because I’ve worked very well with the Obama administration, the Trump administration and now with Biden administration. You will find that Democrats and Republicans on this subcommittee, by and large, will work together along with our center Senate counterparts, try to properly fund this and get it right.
It’s going to take some work. It’s going to take some tough choices, but I have regular meetings with Secretary Granholm and her undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. And I think that’s critically important because that allows me to properly serve the East Tennessee facilities, which now receive $7.4 billion in federal funding that’s up from $4 billion when I started.
Anila Yoganathan is a Knox News investigative reporter. You can contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter @AnilaYoganathan. Enjoy exclusive content and premium perks while supporting strong local journalism by subscribing at knoxnews.com/subscribe.
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