Jessie Blair gets up every weekday at 4 a.m. to travel 120 miles to school in Chattanooga.
The 24-year-old Atlanta student doesn't usually get home until 7:30 p.m., but he says he couldn't be happier.
As one of the first welding students in Westinghouse's new Chattanooga training facility, Mr. Blair sees a bright future working in the nuclear power industry.
"I know the industry is going to need younger guys like me," said Mr. Blair, who completed a welding course from Medix School in Smryna in March but couldn't find a welding job. "This is the best place for me right now and for the future."
Mr. Blair is part of a new generation of workers entering what nuclear power supporters hope is an industry renaissance.
After two decades of cutting nuclear production and plant jobs in the Chattanooga area, nuclear power is heating up again.
The $21 million Westinghouse center in Chattanooga where Mr. Blair is being trained to weld is part of more than $5 billion of regional investment under way or on the drawing board for new nuclear manufacturing and generating plants.
The Tennessee Valley Authority is looking to obtain most of its additional baseload generation from nuclear power in the next decade with plans for new reactors at Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn., and at its Bellefonte site in Hollywood, Ala. Other U.S. utilities have applied for 25 other new reactors -- the first new American nuclear plants to be initiated in more than three decades.
To supply parts for the new plants and refurbish the 104 existing reactors, Alstom Power is building a $280 million fabrication facility on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. Twenty miles downstream, Chicago Bridge & Iron is preparing plans for a $110 million nuclear fabrication plant on the river in South Pittsburg.
Collectively, the new nuclear investments could create more than 3,000 full-time and temporary jobs in the Chattanooga region over the next decade. Local development officials say they are eager for even more investment.
"Chattanooga has the work force, background and location to be a key player in the growth of nuclear power," said J. Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, which has targeted nuclear power manufacturing as one of its growth industries.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., wants the United States to build another 100 reactors in the next 20 years. That would match the pace of construction during the first generation of nuclear plants started in the 1960s and 1970s when most of the 104 existing reactors were built.
nuclear retrenchment, revival
Chattanooga may never regain all of the nuclear jobs the city had in the 1970s when Combustion Engineering was one of the world's biggest manufacturers of nuclear components and TVA's staff swelled above 50,000 employees when the utility was designing or building 17 reactors.
Only six of TVA's reactors were finished, although TVA is now in the midst of a $2.5 billion program to finish a seventh unit by 2012 at Watts Bar. TVA scrapped plans in the early 1980s for nuclear plants in Hartsville and Surgoinsville, Tenn., and in Iuka, Miss., when the demand for power slumped and construction costs jumped.
Alstom and Westinghouse are successsors to the former C-E facility, although their combined employment is less than 20 percent of the 5,700 workers once employed at Combustion.
Since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, no new nuclear plants have been ordered in the United States.
But 17 utilities, including TVA and Georgia Power Co., have applied for combined operating licenses for up to 26 new reactors. None of the next-generation reators are yet under construction, however.
TVA is building the only new nuclear plant in the United States at the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar plant near Spring City, where the last American reactor was completed in 1996.
limits on growth
The long-promised nuclear renaissance still faces a number of economic and political obstacles.
The recession-induced drop in power consumption and growing interest in energy conservation are combining to cut the need for new generation. TVA power sales are down nearly 8 percent this year, and the utility projects another 2 percent drop in fiscal 2010. That will cut power usage near where it was a decade ago.
At the same time, nuclear power faces an uncertain political environment.
The industry secured loan guarantees from Congress in 2005 and public support for nuclear power appears to be growing, according to the industry-based Nuclear Energy Institute.
But a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in June calls for utilities to generate at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy by 2020. Congress spurned attempts to include nuclear power in the renewable portfolio standard.
The Obama administration also has effectively canceled plans for an underground storage facility for nuclear wastes in Yucca Mountain, Nev., and rejected a loan guarantee request for a U.S. uranium enrichment plant to reprocess nuclear fuel.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp., R-Chattanooga, said he fears the White House may be throwing a wrench in plans for a nuclear revival.
Next generation of nuclear power
* 17 applications for a total of 26 new reactors now under regulatory review
* Department of Energy will provide $18.5 billion of loan guarantees for first next-generation reactors
* Four plants targeted for federal loan guarantees:
1. Plant Vogtle, owned primarily by Georgia Power Co., near Waynesboro, Ga.
2. Virgil C. Summer plant, owned primarily by the South Carolina Electric & Gas Company, near Jenkinsville, S.C.
3. South Texas Project, owned by NRG and CPS Energy, Bay City, Texas
4. Calvert Cliffs plant, owned by Constellation Energy, near Lusby, Md.
Source: Nuclear Energy Institute
Nuclear growth in the region
* TVA is spending $2.5 billion to finish Watts Bar Unit 2, projected to employ up to 2,500 workers at its peak.
* TVA has applied to the NRC to build or finish a reactor at Bellefonte in Hollywood, Ala., also projected to employ 2,500 workers at its peak sometime from 2016 to 2018.
* Alstom Power is building a $280 million fabrication facility, projected to employ up to 350 workers eventually
* Chicago Bridge & Iron is planning a $110 million production plant in South Pittsburg with 350 jobs.
* Westinghouse division of Toshiba is investing about $25.2 million to buy and upgrade the former Metals USA building, adding 50 more employees for its nuclear power services division.
* Chattanooga State added a degree last year for radiation protection technician and is adding a two-year engineering degree this year for nondestructive examiners for the nuclear industry.
* Enrollment in the University of Tennessee's nuclear engineering program, the third biggest such program in the country, has nearly tripled in the past decade.
U.S. Enrichment Corp. is laying off employees in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Piketon, Ohio, this month after the Department of Energy turned down the initial application for federal loans for the American Centrifuge enrichment facility. The plant is seen as key to bringing back uranium fuel enrichment to the United States and beginning to reprocess fuel to limit wastes as is done in France.
"For months, we have heard from the secretary of energy, both in private and public meetings, that nuclear power must be part of the U.S. energy strategy," Rep. Wamp said. "But I'm most concerned about the decision against going forward with this project and recognizing nuclear as a safe and emission-free source of energy for the future."
Rep. Wamp said TVA should be a leader in developing more reactors. But TVA President Tom Kilgore conceded last week that the federal utility is bumping up against the congressionally imposed debt ceiling and may need Congress to raise the current $30 billion cap to build more reactors beyond Watts Bar.
By the end of 2012, TVA projects it will have $28 billion in debt "and there is going to be growing pressure on our debt cap."
more deliberate appRoach
Nuclear power critics in Tennessee still worry about a repeat of TVA's exuberance for nuclear power displayed a generation ago when the utility overbuilt and overspent on its nuclear program.
"The expense of nuclear plants doesn't justify building them," said Sandy Kurtz, a member of the Bellefonte Effficiency and Sustainability Team fighting plans for TVA's Bellefonte reactors. "If we were to put that same amount of money in alternative energies, we would be able to have the electricity we need without all of the wastes and legacy issues that come with nuclear power -- and just as many jobs."
In a study of 75 U.S. nuclear reactors built a generation ago, the U.S. Department of Energy found the average plant exceeded its initial cost estimate by more than threefold.
But since then, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has streamlined its licensing process and the industry has agreed to build fewer, more standardized reactor designs to limit costs and delays.
TVA officials insist they learned their lessons from a generation ago, when the utility launched America's most ambitious nuclear power building program with different plant designs at a half dozen sites.
"Construction costs are very high for new reactors," said Ashok Bhatnagar, TVA's senior vice president for new nuclear generation, who estimates nuclear power would be cheaper than most other baseload new generation. "But once you get the plant built it is very low cost to operate and maintain."
TVA Chairman Mike Duncan said the agency is taking a more disciplined and focused approach than in the past and is more likely to meet budgets and schedules.
"I think nuclear is a key part of our baseload power future," he said last week. "But it's going to be a more deliberate process. Instead of trying to build several at one time, we're going to do these one at at time."
Three years ago, TVA's Bellefonte site was picked as the preferred test site for the Westinghouse AP-1000 reactor -- one of the next generation of what proponents claim will be a safer and simpler design. But the Vogtle plant owned by Georgia Power Co. has moved ahead of Bellefonte. Mr. Duncan said TVA has not made any final decision about what type and how many reactors may be built at Bellefonte.
training for new jobs
Dr. Harold Dodds, head of the University of Tennessee's nuclear engineering program in Knoxville, said growing concerns about global warming and comparatively better costs for nuclear power generation have combined to renew interest in nuclear power.
"The public's attitude toward nuclear is positive now, and no longer negative," he said.
Enrollment in UT's nuclear engineering program -- the third biggest in the United States -- has nearly tripled in the past decade, Dr. Dodds said.
Chattanooga State Technical Community College, which last year launched a radiation protection program in its two-year engineering degree program, already has 50 students in the program, according to the college's engineering technology director, Tim McGhee. This fall, a non-destructive testing program is beginning with 15 students -- the first of its kind in the South.
Westinghouse and Alstom also are gearing up this summer for more nuclear work.
Last week, Westinghouse unveiled its Chattanooga training center to local business and political leaders, and an official said another 100 jobs may be added over the next couple of years. The welding institute anticipates training up to 700 Westinghouse welders to help replenish the industry's aging work force, which now averages over 50 years old, and meet anticipated growth in new plants.
David Hamilton, manager of Westinghouse's new Chattanooga welding institute, believes the nuclear industry eventually could be a bigger job generator for the Chattanooga area than even the $1 billion Volkswagen car assembly plant set to open with 2,000 employees by 2012.
"Once these new reactors prove themselves, I think you'll see a whole wave of new construction," he said.
Alstom is framing in its $280 million factory being built on the Tennessee River on the site of the former Combustion Engineering plant. The company expects to begin fabricating turbines and other nuclear equipment before next spring. It recently hired its 100th worker for the new facility, and the plant will grow to 350 jobs by 2012, plant personnel director Kirt Greene said.
Alstom communications director Tim Brown said production will begin in the first quarter of 2010.
"We're excited about the future potential of nuclear power both in the United States and worldwide," he said.