The radioactive fallout from Japan's earthquake-damaged nuclear plant may be minimal in the United States, but America's nuclear power industry could be shaken from what its supporters hoped would be a renaissance in the next decade.
In the Tennessee Valley - a hub for the U.S. nuclear industry and its potential rebound - the outcome of any quake-induced changes in nuclear standards, costs and attitudes could be key to thousands of jobs.
"I think the ongoing problems at the Fukushima plant in Japan clearly indicate it's not a wise long-term strategy for Tennessee or any other state to be betting on nuclear power," said Stephen Smith, a nuclear power opponent who heads the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Nuclear proponents insist that new reactors should still be built to provide a cleaner alternative to burning fossil fuel. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has called for the United States to build 100 new nuclear reactors in the next 20 years, said last week that the nuclear industry should learn from the Japanese disaster. But he insists America can't afford to give up on the technology America developed shortly after World War II.
"Without nuclear power, it is hard to imagine how the United States could produce enough cheap, reliable, clean electricity to keep our economy moving and keep our jobs from going overseas," Alexander said.
China and European countries last week put a temporary hold on nuclear construction as governments around the globe reassessed the safety of the world's 442 nuclear power reactors.
But officials for both TVA and the Southern Co. said they are proceeding with plans for new nuclear plants.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is building the only nuclear power plant under construction in the United States at its Watts Bar plant near Spring City, Tenn. The federal utility is spending $2.5 billion over five years to finish the Unit 2 reactor that the utility mothballed at Watts Bar 1985 amid rising safety concerns and construction costs following the 1979 meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant -- America's worst nuclear plant accident.
At the next TVA board meeting in Chattanooga on April 14, TVA directors will discuss the future of TVA's unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Ala.
For now, TVA Chief Operating Office Bill McCollum told employees last week that TVA has established a central response center in Chattanooga to monitor the Japanese nuclear accident and assess any lessons for TVA's six operating reactors and the utility's preliminary plans to build up to five more reactors by 2030.
"Because of inherent differences in the design, location and vulnerability of natural disasters between the damaged Japanese nuclear plant and American plants, I do not believe it would be appropriate to react before facts are known and propose changing our energy strategy," McCollum said.
Georgia Power Co., a subsidiary of the Southern Co., and its partners, including Dalton Utilities, are proceeding with plans to build the first new nuclear plant at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga. The new reactors at Vogtle, if approved, will be built under the combined operating license standards adopted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to streamline new construction.
"We do not anticipate that events in Japan will impact our construction schedule or our ability to stay on budget," Southern Co. spokesman Todd Terrell said.
Thaw in the Nuclear winter
No new nuclear plants have been started since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania where fuel rods melted down in the reactor core and the unit was destroyed.
But amid growing concerns over carbon emissions from coal-fired plants, nuclear proponents are hoping for a revival in new nuclear construction and are counting on what designers say are simpler and safer designs for future plants.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received applications for 25 new reactors using the next-generation designs, including the two new reactors planned at Vogtle and two new units being studied for Bellefonte.
Most of the new construction is in the Southeast and Chattanooga is trying to capitalize on its central location and nuclear fabrication history to capitalize on any nuclear renaissance. Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield told an American Nuclear Society gathering last year that Chattanooga is "a nuclear friendly city" eager to become home to nuclear component manufacturers.
Oak Ridge, Tenn., which bills itself as the atomic city, is home to several nuclear power contractors as well as the government-funded research on new nuclear technologies and materials at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
In Chattanooga, Alstom Power recently completed a $280 million facility on Riverfront Parkway capable of fabricating major reactor components. Westinghouse Electric Corp., built a $21 million boiling-water reactor center in Chattanooga's riverport last year to train nuclear workers.
The facilities are now servicing many of the 104 operating nuclear reactors in the United States, but the businesses are hoping to expand if new plants are built.
The Nuclear Power Corridor
A new study of the corridor from Huntsville, Ala., to Oak Ridge counted 40 businesses supplying parts or labor to the U.S. nuclear power industry and thousands of skilled workers trained for nuclear-related jobs. Chattanooga State provides radiation specialist training for nuclear plant workers and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville has the nation's third biggest nuclear engineering program.
"I don't think there is another region in the country that has this many educational programs, trained workers and utility customers and their support networks for the nuclear power industry," said Gary Gilmartin, president of Gilmartin Engineering Works and head of the newly formed Tennessee Valley Corridor Nuclear Energy Initiative. "We're the best situated area in the country to support the nuclear industry."
Gilmartin said the nuclear industry will have to assess the Japanese accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant and apply any lessons for making other plants safer.
"But at this point the industry is still moving forward," he said.
But others are far less sure.
"We should use this time for a pause and a time-out to make sure we learn some lessons from what happened in Japan," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. Secretary of Energy.
Dr. Steven Chu, the current Secretary of Energy, told Congress last week that President Obama still supports nuclear power and the White House budget request for $36 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors. But Chu said the government will "be looking very, very closely at the events in Japan" and he declined to speculate on what the Japanese accident may mean for continued construction of new plants.
Even before the Japanese accident, TVA and other utilities have pushed back plans for new reactors due to a slowdown in power demand.
That slowdown has pushed some nuclear suppliers to delay their planned investments.
In Marion County, Chicago Bridge & Iron bought 61 acres on the Tennessee River two years ago and obtained permits to construct a $110 million fabrication facility to serve the nuclear industry. But the company has put those plans on hold until new orders start coming in.
"We're obviously very disappointed that this project and the jobs that it would bring to our county hasn't moved forward," Marion County Mayor John Graham said. "It is a hopeful sign that the company still owns the property and hopefully this facility will someday be built. But the events in Japan are certainly not a hopeful sign of that happening very soon."