Chattanooga is going back to the future to reclaim part of its manufacturing base.
Economic recruiters hope the Tennessee Valley can capitalize on the predicted revival of nuclear power to regain some of the engineering, construction and manufacturing jobs the region shed after utilities quit ordering new plants more than three decades ago.
With up to $50 billion of nuclear plant construction and maintenance proposed over the next 30 years, Chattanooga again is trying to stake its nuclear claim.
“There’s a lot riding on this area in terms of nuclear power in the future,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a former Chattanooga mayor who favors more nuclear power. “TVA has the ability to lead the way and, if they can show leadership in the partnership they’ve created and actually produce a new unit that makes sense, that will cause nuclear power to break away even more.”
Sen. Corker said Chattanooga is at the hub of the technology corridor that stretches from the NASA rocket building facilities in Huntsville, Ala., to the pioneering nuclear research done in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Chattanooga also sits in the middle of the area where most new nuclear reactors are being proposed in the Southeast. With its river and rail lines and historic ties to nuclear power, “Chattanooga is well positioned” to land manufacturing and design facilities the industry is trying to bring back to America, said J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
Critics of nuclear power question whether the long-talked-about revival of nuclear power will take hold.
“These plants are just too risky and expensive, so for all the talk about a renaissance, no utility has yet committed to building any new plants,” said David A. Kraft, an anti-nuclear activist who heads the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service.
The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, the Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy announced Tuesday that they jointly have filed a legal challenge with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to stop plans to build any new reactors at the Bellefonte nuclear site in Hollywood, Ala. The environmental groups complain that more nuclear reactors unduly will heat the Tennessee River, increase problems with radioactive nuclear wastes and cost more than promoting energy conservation.
“The numbers of jobs produced through energy efficiency are many times more than the handful of jobs created through nuclear generation,” Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team director Louise Gorenflo said.
As the power headquarters for TVA and home of one of the biggest manufacturers of nuclear reactor vessels in the 1970s, the Chattanooga region has been hard hit by the nation’s long nuclear winter. No new nuclear plants have been ordered since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, where a series of equipment problems and worker errors caused a partial meltdown of a reactor core and small releases of radioactive gas.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which launched America’s biggest nuclear plant construction program in the 1960s, ended up finishing only six of the original 17 reactors it began designing a generation ago. TVA’s nuclear work force in the Chattanooga region, including the Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Bellefonte plants, is less than a fourth of what it was two decades ago.
Combustion Engineering Corp., which employed more than 5,700 workers at its Chattanooga plant at its peak in 1976, later was sold and split up. Fewer than 700 employees remain today in Combustion’s successor companies in Chattanooga — Alstom Power and Westinghouse Electric — and most of those work to make power vessels and piping for coal plants.
But TVA, Alstom and Westinghouse all are planning staff additions to service new nuclear plants.
TVA is spending $2.5 billion to finish a second reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant by 2012. The utility has hired more than 1,000 contract engineers in Knoxville and workers in Spring City so far and is projected to double those staffing levels over the next couple of years.
Kenny Smith, training manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 175 in Chattanooga, said the union is preparing to provide up to 400 electricians for Watts Bar by the start of 2010.
“We expect to be very busy,” he said.
TVA spokesman John Moulton said Watts Bar will employ 2,300 contract workers in 2009 and 2010, including 450 pipefitters, 70 boilermakers, up to 60 carpenters and hundreds of engineers, general laborers and other workers.
Beyond the temporary plant construction jobs, Tennessee is eager to land new manufacturers to supply the nuclear industry, state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber said.
“One of the goals that the governor has established for the long-term diversification of our economy is to make the energy industry grow roots in our state and really become as important to Tennessee as our automotive industry over the next decade or two,” Mr. Kisber said.
Already, Alstom Turbo Machines Group is preparing to invest $280 million to make turbines for nuclear plants in one of the old plants once owned by Combustion Engineering. Westinghouse Electric also is planning to buy and renovate an abandoned plant in the Centre South Riverport and add 50 more employees over the next year to expand its nuclear services business.
Alstom, a Swiss-based energy giant, plans to hire 350 workers to supplement its nearby 600-employee Chattanooga plant that makes boiler and tubular components for coal-fired power plants.
“We see that nuclear power is already coming back and will come back even stronger in the United States,” Philippe Joubert, president of Alstom Power Systems, recently told Greenwire, a publication of E&E Publishing.
Mr. Joubert said Chattanooga was selected to make nuclear turbines because of the region’s history of nuclear development, including the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The University of Tennessee, which helps manage the Oak Ridge lab, has maintained its nuclear engineering program at UT-Knoxville and also is eager to stake a claim on a nuclear revival.
“Whether it is closing the nuclear fuel cycle, new, more-efficient reactors or new transmission lines and capabilities, we’re in a unique position to be a driver for this industry,” said Dr. David Millhorn, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the University of Tennessee.
Take a look back at a video produced in January 2007 inside the control room simulator, where technicians are trained to respond to emergency situations at the nuclear facility near Spring City, Tenn.