Nation’s First Nuclear Reactor in 20 Years Starts Operation

Energy and Climate Report provides current, thorough coverage of clean energy, efficiency, and climate change legislation, regulation, policy, legal developments, and trends in the U.S. and...

By Rebecca Kern

Oct. 19 — The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor near Spring City, Tenn., officially began commercial operation Oct. 19, making it the first new commercial nuclear reactor to go online in the U.S. in the last 20 years.

The reactor has been more than 40 years in the making and cost approximately $6 billion to complete, not adjusting for inflation.

Watts Bar Unit 2 is one of five reactors in the U.S. expected to open in the next five years. However, cost overruns and delays are leading critics to question whether new nuclear plants will be built in the future.

Construction on Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 began in 1973. Work stopped on Unit 2 in 1985 due to deficiencies at the plant. Unit 1 began operation in 1996.

In 2007, the TVA began efforts again to complete Unit 2, submitting an updated license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2009 and received its operating license in October 2015. Unit 2 is the first new reactor in the U.S. since its sister plant started operations.

The Unit 2 startup comes at a time when nuclear operators have shut down—or announced plans to shut down—10 reactors in five states due to difficulty competing against low natural gas prices, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nuclear industry. The group predicts that an additional 15 to 20 nuclear reactors are at risk of premature closure in the coming years.

Marvin Fertel’s, NEI’s president and CEO, praised TVA’s completion of the plant.

“At a time when our nation and the world are seeking cleaner sources of affordable, reliable energy, Watts Bar Unit 2 is poised to produce tremendous environmental and economic benefits for communities in the Tennessee Valley for decades to come,”he said in an Oct. 19 statement.

However, Mark Cooper, a senior research fellow for economic analysis at the Vermont Law School, said it is no longer financially viable to build new reactors in the U.S. Watts Bar Unit 2 “is not a monument to the future nuclear power, it’s a mausoleum for the future of nuclear power,” he told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 19.

The TVA says that Units 1 and 2, located approximately 60 miles southwest of Knoxville, Tenn., produce almost 2,300 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.3 million homes in TVA’s service area. The NRC says the pressurized-water Unit 2 reactor is the first to meet the agency’s post-Fukushima-related orders on mitigation strategies and spent fuel pool instrumentation.

Watchdogs Say Building Nuclear Too Costly

The TVA estimates that it spent $1.3 billion originally on the project. Work resumed after the board of directors approved $4 billion to $4.5 billion to complete the reactor in 2012, and then later approved an additional $200 million in 2016, bringing total estimated costs to $6 billion.

Critics say that the $6 billion price tag to complete Watts Bar Unit 2 is a reminder of the expense of building nuclear reactors today.

Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a information center for environmentalists concerned about nuclear power and radioactive waste, said he would estimate Watts Bar Unit 2 cost between $7 billion and $8 billion when adjusted for inflation.

“As an economic enterprise, they are doomed,” Cooper said of nuclear reactors in the U.S.

The four other nuclear reactors under development in the U.S. today are Scana Corp./SCE&G’s V.C. Summer Units 2 and 3 in South Carolina and Southern Co.'s Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia.

The V.C. Summer nuclear reactors were originally estimated to cost $11.4 billion to build and now they are estimated to cost $13.9 billion, an additional $2.5 billion, Scana Corp. told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 19.

Southern Co. did not provide specific total cost estimates in time for deadline. Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co. which owns about 45 percent of Vogtle Units 3 and 4, said its portion would cost $5.4 billion, a company spokesman told Bloomberg BNA.

Hiccups During Testing

The TVA has been testing how Unit 2 delivers electricity to the grid over the past year.

There were several hiccups. In June, an auxiliary feedwater system—a pump that provides cooling water to the reactor—cut off but was repaired within days, Scott Brooks, TVA’s spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 19.

In August, a transformer caught fire at the site, causing the TVA to stop testing on the reactor for three weeks while the transformer was replaced, Brooks said.

Judson said these are typical “break-in” problems that nuclear reactors face during testing period for new reactors.

Similarly, Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project, said, “I didn’t see anything among those problems that suggested there was poor performance on TVA’s part.”

The more concerning issue was a letter that the NRC sent to the TVA in March about a “chilled work environment” and fear of retaliation among employees who voice safety concerns at Watts Bar nuclear plant, Lochbaum told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 19.

“I think the biggest issue was the culture issues that the NRC flagged in March,” he said. “But the good news is that both the NRC and TVA paid attention to them, so however bad they were, they got better from then on.”

TVA’s Brooks said the TVA responded to the NRC within the required 30-day time period with a plan for additional messaging and meetings with employees to address communications concerns raised by the NRC.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rKern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.