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Small Modular Reactors

Babcock and Wilcox diagram of a small modular reactor assembly

SMR assembly

It seems that I’m not the only one who thinks that the DOE announcement of the small modular reactor project in Oak Ridge was a win for Oak Ridge. At least the folks around the Savannah River Site think it was a loss for them, based on an op-ed column in the Aiken Standard newspaper. The December 28, 2012, opinion piece says (in part):

The Department of Energy’s recent decision to pour millions into a new small modular reactor project in Tennessee is yet another blow to local efforts to save the Savannah River Site from what many fear may ultimately be permanent closure.

Encouraged by DOE and working with the private sector, the SouthernCarolina Alliance and other economic development groups mounted an aggressive campaign to locate SMR research and demonstration projects at SRS. However, DOE’s most recent decision to fund the SMR project in Tennessee instead indicates that this common sense approach to deploy this new technology and create jobs here in our region is not to be.

Instead, DOE has announced it will make a “significant investment” – estimated to be hundreds of millions – in Tennessee in first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for SMRs. The funding is part of a five-year cost share agreement with Babcock & Wilcox in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel. The investment is geared toward helping B&W obtain Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and achieve commercial operation by 2022.

Small Modular Reactors hold great promise for the nation’s energy future. They are about one-third the size of current nuclear power plants, have compact, scalable designs and offer safety, construction and economic benefits.

…The loss of the SMR project to Tennessee should be a wake-up call to all of us. We must take steps now to transform our regional economy by fighting for these new missions, and our communities’ business leaders and elected officials should lead this charge.


A big step closer to small modular reactors in Oak Ridge!

Today DOE announced a grant award to Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel for small modular reactor development. The press release doesn’t say so, but TVA’s site for the SMRs is the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project site in Oak Ridge. There were several SMR projects being considered involving different manufacturers and different sites, so this looks like a win for Oak Ridge!


Thoughts on history and preservation

Kiosk at Oak Ridge Welcome Center, which promotes Manhattan Project heritage tourism

Today’s Oak Ridger has the first installment of  the responses that City Council candidates provided when D. Ray Smith asked for our thoughts on city history and historic preservation. My complete responses are here. His request was:

What I would like to have to include in a future “Historically Speaking” column are your thoughts on the following:

 1. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park

2. Preservation of the Alexander Inn

3. K-25 Memorandum of Understanding (the history center there in the Fire Hall, the replica building, the viewing tower and the footprint being preserved)

4. The importance of Heritage Tourism as one of the economic development strategies for Oak Ridge

5. Any other thoughts you might have on historic preservation

What I told Ray in response:

Oak Ridge is a place where ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things that contributed to changing the history of the world. I was reminded of the tremendous significance of the Manhattan Project a few days ago when the BBC website had a feature story about “Five of history’s most important places,” listing Los Alamos alongside places like Athens, Greece.

The story of what happened in Oak Ridge needs to be made available and accessible to future generations. I am excited about the prospect of establishing a Manhattan Project National Historic Park because I believe that the National Park Service has the expertise to help us do a more effective job of telling our story and because National Park affiliation will bring more visitors into our city. Oak Ridge won’t become a tourist mecca on a par with Gatlinburg, but we can expect solid economic benefits from bringing more customers to our hotels, restaurants, visitor attractions, and specialty shops.

It’s a shame that none of Oak Ridge’s three Manhattan Project “signature facilities” can be seen by visitors on a regular basis. The Beta 3 calutron building at Y-12 is in a high security area, the Graphite Reactor can be visited only on public bus tours in the summer, and the K-25 building is being demolished. I am still disappointed that DOE did not see clear to preserving a part of the K-25 building. I recall that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation consultants who visited some years ago said that the massive scale of that building was something that visitors in future centuries would be impressed by. Since we couldn’t keep a piece of K-25, the projects spelled out in the K-25 Memorandum of Understanding are a reasonable substitute.

I am very pleased by the news that the Alexander Inn Guest House likely will be preserved and restored. It was an important part of Manhattan Project Oak Ridge; it’s a treasured landmark in the lives of most long-time Oak Ridgers; and a restored Alexander Inn will help tie the Jackson Square area together as a historic commercial district and visitor attraction. Some residents have told me that the Alexander doesn’t have sufficient historic significance to be worth preserving. I agree that it doesn’t meet the same standard of exceptional historic significance as the three “signature facilities,” but very few historic properties anywhere can meet that high of a standard. (The Graphite Reactor is one of fewer than 2,500 national historic landmarks in the country, and the other two facilities are also deemed worthy of that exalted designation.) All in all, I think the Alexander is a significant physical piece of Oak Ridge history that is worth trying to hang onto.

Note: That response was written almost two weeks ago, before City Council voted (unanimously!) to approve a tax abatement that will help make the Alexander Inn restoration a reality.


City Council’s best and worst: September 27th Observer question

The Oak Ridge Observer‘s question for Council candidates this week was “What’s the best thing City Council has done in the past ten years? And what’s the worst thing?”

I chose to focus my 75-words-or-less answer on the five years that I’ve been on Council. The first part of my response (in the September 27 edition of the Observer) says:

Council’s best action in my five years in office was making a good hire for city manager. Under Mark Watson, there has been real progress against chronic problems such as neighborhood blight.

In a council-manager government like ours, it is pretty much a given that the single most important thing the Council does is to choose and employ a good city manager. It’s the manager, not the council, who directs the rest of the city staff and runs the city on a daily basis. When city manager Jim O’Connor left for another position at the end of 2009, we had to recruit and select a new manager. Mark Watson arrived in the summer of 2010. Change didn’t occur overnight, but after two years it’s clear that his personnel actions (such as the hiring of Police Chief Jim Akagi), the policy initiatives he’s brought to Council, and his day-to-day direction to staff, have made inroads against some chronic problems in the city.

In the second part of my response, I said:

Council’s biggest shortcoming has been our failure to undertake a critical examination of the city’s economic development efforts. The results we have achieved aren’t commensurate with the amounts we spend on marketing, lobbyists, special events, etc.

In a typical year, Oak Ridge spends over $900,000 of our city budget in the name of “economic diversification.” That money goes to the Convention and Visitors Bureau for tourism promotion; to the Chamber of Commerce and several other regional economic development organizations for business recruitment and promotion; and to the city’s lobbyists in Washington, DC, and Nashville. It also pays for all or part of a variety of special events, such as the Secret City Festival, July 4th fireworks, and “Secret City Sounds” concerts on summer evenings. These things have been supported year in and year out because of a general perception that they are good things for the city to support.

In addition, business incentives such as tax abatements are a cost to the city, and the city Industrial Development Board uses funds obtained from public resources to pay for infrastructure improvements, spec buildings, and other activities at industrial parks and other business properties. In total, city government spends a good bit more than $1 million a year on economic development.

For the most part, these are things the city should continue to support. However,  I don’t think that the expenditure over 1 million dollars a year is achieving  the amount of benefit we ought to expect from that amount of money, so we are overdue for a critical evaluation of this entire program. Council is not qualified to devise a new strategy for economic development, but we need to try to measure the return on our investment, ask why Oak Ridge is supporting a particular set of activities — and whether decisions made long ago still make sense, seek recommendations on actions and strategies that might produce better results, and ask what is the right amount for the city to be spending on these efforts. Ideally, a re-examination of the city’s economic development activities would happen annually.


What we don’t understand can hurt us

Disposition of uranium-233 has been an issue for DOE in Oak Ridge for a number of years. Now the New York Times has an article about challenges in getting rid of U-233. The article only minimally mentions the challenges that exist at the ORNL facility, where the U-233 is now, but what the article discusses has implications for Oak Ridge.

Since this is a fissile material that could be used for weapons, criticality safety and safeguards/security are major factors in managing it — and have been absorbing some of the money that otherwise would be spent on environmental cleanup of the DOE sites in Oak Ridge. The stuff is also radiologically hot (due to radioactive progeny formed by decay of U-233), which makes its removal and processing far more complicated — and expensive.

At one time, many of us hoped that thorium-229, a medically useful isotope formed by radioactive decay of U-233, would be extracted from the U-233 stockpile for use in treating patients. The idea of using this material to save lives was scrapped due to  complexities of maintaining safety when processing the material and by Congressional action that barred DOE from attempting it. Two years ago, in an environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact, DOE announced that it would blend the U-233 with nonfissile “depleted” uranium (U-238) and dispose of the blended material underground in a licensed facility, such as at the Nevada Test Site. Now the Times article says DOE no longer plans to “downblend” (I recall hearing rumblings of this change), but would instead would be solidified in a ceramic form before disposal — and critics are saying that’s not safe enough.

While controversy continues, the project is providing good jobs in Oak Ridge, but its cost means that other projects that would benefit the community in the long term are being delayed — and the safety/security concerns are sitting here in our backyard instead of at a remote site out west. After the recent breach at Y-12, I believe we are all more aware of these things than we had been in recent years. (I see that Frank Munger touched on this recently.)

Recognizing and understanding these types of issues is a continuing need and challenge. What we don’t understand can hurt us, and we can’t depend on the Department of Energy to look out for the local community if we don’t look out for ourselves. (I miss the Local Oversight Committee!)

Added September 25: Frank Munger’s blog now includes an item about the report that led to the NY Times article.


In this week’s Oak Ridge Observer

Here’s what I said when The Oak Ridge Observer asked what (in 75 words or less) had “compelled” the candidates to run for City Council:

Under our charter, City Council consists of citizens elected to represent their friends and neighbors in making decisions for the common good. I am attracted to this kind of civic service. I seek re-election to help Oak Ridge make wise choices, ensuring value for our money, and aiming for a prosperous future without sacrificing what makes our city special (like neighborhoods, schools, city services, natural environment, and atomic heritage).

Pick up a copy of Thursday’s Observer or subscribe to the online edition to see the other candidate’s answers. Editor Stan Mitchell will be running a new question for all area candidates every week from now until the election.

In that same issue of the Observer, I also had a short guest column, under the headline “Eminent domain was never on the table”, responding to an editorial the previous week that applauded the announcement of plans for a new Kroger Marketplace shopping center:

I agree with most of the sentiments expressed in the September 13th editorial about the Kroger Marketplace project, but I was troubled by the suggestion that eminent domain might have been used if property owners hadn’t voluntarily accepted the developer’s purchase offers.

Some people have told me they were afraid they could be forced to sell their homes to this retail developer, but I don’t think there is a valid basis for this concern. First, this is a private initiative. It is not sponsored by the Oak Ridge city government, nor (as far as I know) any other government. Secondly, Tennessee law allows eminent domain (condemnation) to acquire property only for “public use”, not for a private economic development such as a retail store.

A Municipal Technical Advisory Service publication entitled “Eminent Domain in Tennessee” discusses the allowable purposes for eminent domain under Tennessee law. I suppose that a clever lawyer might be able to stretch some of the allowable purposes (such as the redevelopment of a blighted area) to justify acquiring a residential neighborhood for a shopping center, but that couldn’t happen without government action — and probably some nasty litigation. In the case of the site for the Kroger Marketplace, the neighborhood as a whole is not blighted — and no one ever approached me, as a City Council member, to suggest that the city government should help acquire the land for the project.

As the editorial indicated, the development team deserves to be commended for successfully assembling the property for this project through voluntary purchases. We don’t need to speculate about what they would have done if property owners didn’t agree to sell, because involuntary acquisition by eminent domain wasn’t a realistic option.


Not only in Knoxville

Plan ET region

Plan ET region

Yesterday’s Knoxville News Sentinel reported on plans for installation of electric-vehicle charging stations at public sites (parks and parking garages) in the city of Knoxville. This is not only happening in Knoxville — we’re getting ten federally funded charging stations at public places here in Oak Ridge, too. Five sites will each get two car-charging units. If I remember the list correctly, we can look for them soon at the Library-Civic Center complex, the Haw Ridge trailhead, the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge, and the east- and west-end fire stations on Oak Ridge Turnpike. This will help define various Oak Ridge sites — especially Haw Ridge and the Children’s Museum — as good destinations for electric-car owners throughout the Knoxville metro area.

While it’s natural for Oak Ridgers like me to focus on our city and for the Knoxville paper to focus on its own backyard, I believe that we shouldn’t be thinking of our two cities in isolation. We are part of one metropolitan region that is increasingly interconnected — and our fortunes will rise or fall together. The economic development group Knoxville Oak Ridge Innovation Valley has produced an impressive list of rankings that indicate our strength as a region — number 1 in Green Jobs Growth according to the Brookings Institution, the number 4 High Tech Hub according to Business Facilities, number 5 for “Best Metro Value” according to Kiplinger’s, a number 8 ranking on CNN Money‘s “Fastest Growing Cities” list, and number 6 on the Forbes list of Best Metros for Jobs. Even though these rankings are sometimes described in regional media as relating to the “city of Knoxville”, these scores are based on statistics for the entire metropolitan area (usually the metropolitan statistical area of Knox, Anderson, Blount, Loudon, and Union counties), and Oak Ridge is a big part of the region’s successes.

This perspective has a lot to do with why I’m supportive of the Plan ET initiative. Although it is inevitable that we will continue to think about places like Knoxville, Farragut, Clinton, and Maryville as competitors, we need to think regionally and start to cooperate for our mutual benefit. This coming week I’ll be attending Plan ET working group meetings to discuss trends in the region, a draft vision for the region in the year 2040, and the next steps that will create some alternative scenarios for our future.


Tempest over tuition

Monday evening’s City Council agenda has drawn a lot more attention from media and citizens than usual — likely a result of the agenda having been published almost a week earlier than usual. The item drawing the most attention (from the News Sentinel, Oak Ridge Today, the Observer and the Oak Ridger, as well as a lot of negative comment from citizens) — whether to reimburse city manager Mark Watson’s tuition for his PhD program at the University of Tennessee — came a surprise to me because it had been only lightly discussed by the Council committee that considered the city manager’s performance evaluation — and we had not voted on it, much less made a recommendation to the full Council.

Because of the number of questions and comments I’ve gotten on this item, I’m presenting my viewpoint on the tuition tempest here for everyone’s benefit.

This was my 5th year to sit on a committee to evaluate one of the Council’s two employees (city manager and city attorney), so the process seemed pretty routine. When our committee (Dave Mosby, Chuck Hope and I) met in early June, we had all digested the ratings and comments submitted by individual Council members and we moved quickly to discussing the business of  compensation and contract term. The compensation recommendation of “same percentage increase as the rest of the staff” (1-1/2%) seemed pretty easy to make. It took a bit more discussion before we decided to recommend a 2-year contract extension (to August 2016) to reflect Council members’ general satisfaction with the manager — but with the awareness (always expressed with a smile and a wink) that the only true guarantee that any Oak Ridge city manager has is good only for as long as the term of the severance pay (currently about 8 months) that he would get if he were fired.

The city manager had an additional request for us to discuss — he asked to be allowed to take the dollar value of his “emergency leave” with him when he leaves city employment (whenever that happens). We asked questions about what emergency leave means in the city system (it’s complicated), how it is accumulated (that’s complicated, too), what the policy is on accumulated emergency leave for rank-and-file employees who leave city employment (a retiring employee can use the accumulated leave to “buy” more credit toward their pension, which is provided by the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System), and what was done when the last city manager (Jim O’Connor) left the city (he received the dollar value of his accumulated emergency leave). After a lot of information-gathering and discussion the committee  decided that it would be equitable to amend Mark Watson’s contract to let him receive the dollar value of the accumulated emergency leave.

One member of the committee (Chuck Hope) expressed a desire to provide something more for the manager, at which point Mark Watson offered the suggestion that the city could pay his tuition. Personnel director Penny Sissom told us that the city used to have a tuition reimbursement program for employees, but that program was cut out of the budget some years ago (before my time on Council). I recall saying that in some future budget Council might want to re-establish a tuition reimbursement program that would be available to all employees for education programs that are judged to benefit the city, and if this was done the manager might qualify. Recent tight budgets have not included any leeway for this type of thing, but particularly with a recent influx of younger employees, I can see how it could have long-term benefits to the city government. I definitely don’t like the idea of providing this benefit to the top-level manager unless it is also offered to lower-paid employees who are less able to afford UT tuition on their own. I don’t specifically recall the comments made by the others regarding Mark’s tuition request, but I do recall that no one introduced a motion to consider adding an education reimbursement provision to the manager’s contract. We did agree that this request should be mentioned in the committee minutes.

I went off to Alaska on vacation for the latter part of June, so I missed the City Council’s June 25 work session. Apparently something that somebody said at that work session gave Mark the idea that Council might support the request for tuition reimbursement, so he drew up a proposed addition to the contract that would pay his tuition  — and that would require him to reimburse the city from his emergency leave “pot” for any course that he completed less than 3 years before leaving city employment. I had no idea this was coming, so I was surprised when I starting getting questions about it.

There’s no denying that Mark’s request shows initiative on his part (not altogether different from initiative that he shows on behalf of the city’s interests), but I can’t support this request when the City isn’t offering the same kind of opportunity to other city employees.

As it happens,  the emergency leave “deal” that the committee recommended is a larger financial benefit than the proposed tuition reimbursement that we didn’t recommend (a city memo says that the manager’s current emergency leave balance is worth more than $30,000 and it will grow in the future, while his tuition for about 12 credits in one year reportedly would be only about $6000). I suppose one reason why the tuition proposal (and not the emergency leave proposal)  is the subject of the tempest is that emergency leave is so complicated, but pretty much  everybody understands tuition.

It’s surprises like this one that make City Council membership so doggone interesting!

Update, Monday afternoon: The city manager has notified Council that he is withdrawing his request for tuition reimbursement.


Good press for our metro area

Forbes magazine ranks the Knoxville Metropolitan Area (which includes Oak Ridge) #6 in its list of the best “mid-size” metro areas for jobs (and we’re number 33 overall among the 398 U.S. metro areas), with healthy job growth. Interestingly, Knoxville seems to be bucking the trends described in the Forbes article, which says that that job growth is best in cities that are centers for the oil and gas industry (not us) and that college towns (Knoxville is one) and places with a large government presence (another attribute of this area) are doing less well than last year. The Innovation Valley website has a nice analysis of the positive business news in our region, including the diversity of the economic activity that led to this ranking.


Sizing up the competition

Folks around Oak Ridge are enthusiastic about the prospects for small modular reactors (SMRs) at the southwestern Oak Ridge location known as the “breeder site”, but we need to be aware that there are other project sponsors and communities aiming for financial assistance and quick regulatory review as the first SMRs.  A New York Times blog piece by Matthew Wald reports on utility-manufacturer partnerships in Missouri, Oregon, and South Carolina that appear to be competing with the TVA-Babcock & Wilcox for primacy in SMRs.

Note: The site is called the “breeder site” because it was once destined to become the site of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, a big federal nuclear technology initiative that ultimately was cancelled after initial construction had begun.