A meeting Monday about the completion of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant's new Unit 2 reactor pointed up growing concern about nuclear power after several people in the audience raised questions about TVA's nuclear track record and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's oversight.
James Moorman, director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Southeast division of construction projects, said Japan's earthquake and tsunami, and the ensuing nuclear crisis at its Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant, raised awareness.
"I think the interest in new [nuclear] construction has gone up because of Fukushima, and I think everybody wants the plants to be run safely, and they have questions about our response to Fukushima," Moorman said.
The NRC, now tasked by President Barack Obama to evaluate "lessons learned" from Fukushima, also has raised awareness.
Moorman said the NRC, as part of its investigation to license America's only reactor now under construction, is reviewing 500 whistle-blower allegations still on file with the agency after construction on the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant was halted in 1985. TVA in 1996 completed and began operating Unit 1 there, and in 2007 began a five-year, $2.49 billion construction project to complete Unit 2. That reactor now is scheduled to go online in 2012.
Robert Haag, NRC's construction projects chief, told TVA during the meeting that the regulatory agency has reviewed and closed 79 of those allegations.
"Because of the history of Unit 2 - starting in the '70s and stopping in the '80s then starting back, we decided we needed to look back at these historical allegations to see if there might be hardware issues," Haag said.
From the mid-1970s when construction began at Watts Bar to Unit 1's startup in 1996, whistleblower allegations raised concerns about everything from quality control to fire protection. When work stopped on Unit 2, the whistleblower allegations pertaining to that reactor were shelved by NRC.
"We think we're on schedule with what we have [in that new look]," Moorman said after the meeting.
But several listeners at the meeting were full of questions and concerns.
Ann Harris, one of the whistleblowers and former Watts Bar employees, took TVA and NRC officials to task for not checking what she said were far more than 500 allegations long ago.
"This is snake oil you're spinning," she told the officials.
Brian Paddock, an attorney working with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, asked NRC how the recent evaluations of failures at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant might affect the scheduled October 2012 Watts Bar startup.
"I haven't heard anything about that," he said.
He also questioned whether NRC's recent re-evaluations of seismic risks to the plant are being applied at Watts Bar.
NRC officials told him they would get back to him with answers.
Thomas Saparito, an environmental consultant and a teleconference listener to the meeting, was the most vocal.
"TVA mentioned digital equipment in the redesigned [reactor] control room. Can it be hacked into?" he asked.
"And TVA said they are looking at industry benchmarks" as startup scheduling goals. "That scares ... me," he said. "Startup should not be based on industry benchmarks. It should be based on safety systems. That [statement] is totally asinine and should be a red flag for NRC."
Moorman told Saparito the NRC has a "robust" inspection program.
"I assure you we will be diligent," he said.
Rhea County Mayor George Thacker told the TVA and NRC officials he feels comfortable living beside the nuclear plant. He said he was "energized" to watch the concern they put into planning and building the new reactor.
David Stinson, vice president for TVA's Watts Bar 2 plant, told NRC officials that 62 percent of the overall construction for Watt's Bar new Unit 2 reactor is complete.
Pending final licensing by the NRC, the new reactor is scheduled to go online in October 2012. To do that, Stinson said, the construction must be complete by July.
"Where we are today, without any improvement, that won't happen," he said. "But hopefully we'll be back on schedule in a few weeks."
The new reactor could supply electricity to 650,000 homes, just like its twin - the Watts Bar Unit 1 reactor that came online at a cost of $6.9 billion after 23 years of construction.
Unit 1, for now, is still the newest of the nation's 104 operating commercial reactors.
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