SPRING CITY, Tenn. - The Tennessee Valley Authority is in the homestretch of building its newest nuclear reactor - and the first new nuclear unit to be built in three decades.
On Tuesday, TVA officials led a tour of the Watts Bar Unit 2 construction site for Cleveland Utilities and city officials to get a rare glimpse of how a nuclear plant works from the inside out - and how one is built.
"It's important that the public understand the scope of the Unit 2 project and what it means," said Nancy Mitchel, customer service manager for TVA. "Sixty years from now, people will still be using its power."
When completed, the second unit at the Watts Bar facility will be the first nuclear unit to begin operations in the 21st Century, generating 1,150 megawatts of power, said TVA officials.
Construction of the unit, which underwent a major overhaul in planning and approach in 2012 after experiencing costly delays, is expected to wrap up in early 2015.
At this time, cost projections for construction are trending towards $4.2 billion, which is under a prior estimate of $4.5 billion, said Mike Skaggs, senior vice president of nuclear construction for TVA.
At the project's height of work, about 3,500 construction personnel were employed, said Skaggs. That number has dropped down to 3,200 and will continue to draw down as the construction phases reach their conclusions.
Safety is a key priority for facility's infrastructure and all personnel, he said. TVA has completed 27 million manhours - or nearly 13,000 work years - without a lost time accident at Watts Bar.
In addition to multiple levels of redundant safety checks and controls, the plant is also adding another layer of protection as part of Watts Bar's response to the disaster that occurred at the nuclear plant at Fukushima, Japan in 2011.
Part of that response is the creation of a "flex building," which is constructed to withstand catastrophic events such as tornadoes, earthquakes and flooding, said Skaggs.
The Watts Bar flex building is one of the first of its kind for TVA and 11 nuclear facilities are copying the Watts Bar model, he said.
Plant operators also undergo rigorous ongoing training and simulator evaluations, said Skaggs.
"We play for keeps," said Skaggs. "Nuclear power is serious business."
The tour included visits to the reactor building, the control centers and the inside of the containment building, which houses the unit's nuclear core. Visitors were allowed to view core rods and the massive pieces which comprise the inner workings Unit 2 where the energy released from nuclear fuel rods will generate steam to turn turbines and create electricity by December 2015.
The towering components of the reactor core are expected to undergo assembly this summer, said Skaggs.
"Watts Bar is an investment in the community and region," said Tom Wallace, senior manager of operations. "We cannot pick up and move to Sante Fe or Mexico. We are here for the long term."
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at email@example.com.