SPRING CITY, Tenn. — When Harold Fisher began his TVA career 36 years ago helping to build the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near his home here, he was one of thousands of workers building what ultimately became Tennessee's most expensive construction project.
"TVA has been very good for Rhea County and has helped to create a lot of good-paying jobs, including my own," said Fisher, a TVA retiree who now serves as a Rhea County commissioner in Spring City. "We all knew this plant would be completed some day and a lot of the temporary construction jobs would go away, and that is going to be a hit for some businesses in the area."
That "temporary" construction work on the twin-reactor Westinghouse units lasted for 43 years while TVA built — and in some instances rebuilt — the Watts Bar plant to conform with changing regulations and power demand. Unit 1 was completed in 1996 and on Wednesday TVA declared that the Unit 2 was complete.
TVA will continue to employ about 950 full-time workers to operate the two reactors here, TVA Nuclear Chief Joe Grimes said Wednesday. But that is only a fraction of the more than 5,000 TVA and contractor workers who were on the site a couple of years ago at the peak of construction for Unit 2. Even higher numbers were reached in the 1990s when TVA was finishing the first reactor here.
As a result, Rhea County had the highest jobless rate of any county in Southeast Tennessee in August, the most recent month available. Rhea County's unemployment rate in August rose to 7.6 percent, well above the statewide average of 5 percent, even with better employment at some local manufacturers.
Susan Smith, who operates the Wolf creek Market Deli and Grill a couple of miles from the plant, said her breakfast and luncheon business is only half what it was this spring when TVA was still employing hundreds of contractors to finish the Unit 2 reactor.
But last month when TVA finally completed work on a replacement transformer and activated both of the units at Watts Bar, construction and other contractor crews moved on to other sites and sales of Smith's breakfast biscuits in the morning and hamburgers at lunch quickly fell off.
"We're trying to get local residents and the truck drivers who come by to stop in, but since the last big layoff at Watts Bar, it's gotten a lot harder to get by," Smith said.
Shawn Wooden, who lives about a mile from the plant, converted part of his 16 acres to build a Creekview RV park a decade ago to house the construction and contract workers at the Watts Bar plant.
"We stayed full for many years, but it's tough for all of us now," he said.
Wooden said only three of the 27 lots are now rented.
At the Key West Village, only 11 of the 22 homes are now occupied and the owners are eager to rent out the available units.
"We used to stay full all the time, but it's a lot different now," said Melanie Baker, manager of the complex just north of the plant.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340.