SPRING CITY, Tenn. - Within an $80 million concrete building anchored to the bedrock of the highest point at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority is storing enough pumps, generators and other equipment to respond to most any type of earthquake, storm or missile attack.
"The next time a tornado comes through East Tennessee, this is the building you want to be in," U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said after touring the just-completed Flex building Wednesday.
TVA is the first U.S. utility to complete the new backup facility, which regulators are ordering to be built at most nuclear plants to avoid a disaster like the one three years ago when an earthquake and tsunami destroyed Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The natural disaster left the Fukushima plant unable to pump water into the reactor core to safely shut down the units. Three of the six reactors melted down and released deadly radiation into the air and ocean.
As the 18-inch thick concrete doors to the Flex building opened here amid repeated siren blasts Wednesday, TVA showed off the half-dozen portable pumps stored in the new secured bunker.
Each of the pumps can deliver up to 5,000 gallons of water a minute to cool the reactors. They are a new layer of protection the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wants utilities to employ as a backup if a natural disaster or attack cuts off power and backup diesel generators failed, as happened at Fukushima.
The new Flex building, named for the flexibility it would afford in responding to a worst-case accident, is designed to withstand winds of up to 360 miles per hour and earthquakes more than twice as great as any predicted for East Tennessee.
TVA has spent nearly $200 million to upgrade its dams, equipment and backup systems to limit the chance of another Fukushima-type accident. The federal utility hopes to become the first utility in America to gain NRC approval of the post-Fukushima changes in early 2015 and to bring the first new reactor on line by the end of next year.
Despite delays and extra costs from stricter regulations, TVA President Bill Johnson said the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar should begin generating power at attractive rates by then.
Unit 2 will be the first new nuclear unit to be added to the America's electric grid in the 21st century.
Johnson said Unit 2's startup "will probably be slightly higher" in power costs than TVA's average cost of generating electricity.
"But over the projected 60-year life of the plant, Watts Bar should help keep TVA power costs lower" than they would be for most any other source of energy, Johnson said.
TVA wrote off most of the $1.5 billion it spent in its first 30 years on Unit 2 and will absorb a projected $4.2 billion capital cost into its rates once the reactor starts producing power.
That's about half the cost of nuclear plants being built in Georgia and South Carolina using next-generation Westinghouse AP-1000 designs.
"We're building a known machine here at Watts Bar, so this is going to be an economical plant that will be good for the environment and for our rates," Johnson said.
Alexander, one of the strongest supporters of nuclear power in the U.S. Senate, praised TVA's moves to expand its nuclear capability. Unit 2 will be the seventh reactor for TVA, which also is asking regulators to extend the life of its Browns Ferry and Sequoyah nuclear plants.
The utility also will have to build backup buildings at Browns Ferry and Sequoyah to meet post-Fukushima regulations. But Senior Vice President Mike Skaggs said the utility will build on Watts Bar's experience to save money.
Alexander said nuclear plants "are safe, cheap and reliable" and should help TVA adjust to new controls on carbon emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants.
"I'm glad that TVA is moving ahead to a position to get 40 percent of its power from nuclear," Alexander said. "This will make TVA one of the cleanest utilities in the country and that is especially important because every one of our metropolitan areas [in Tennessee] has an air pollution problem."
One nuclear unit can make as much electricity as five to 10 coal units, without carbon emissions. It is estimated that Watts Bar 2 will help TVA avoid coal-fired emissions of 6 million to 8 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Unless Tennessee cleaned up its dirty air, Nissan could not have located in Smyrna, GM could not have built in Spring Hill and Volkswagen could not have come to Chattanooga, Alexander said.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 757-6340.