TVA readies 'new nuclear unit' 42 years after its start

Unit 2 operations supervisor Damon Fegley, right, shows former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman the unit 2 control room during a tour of TVA's Watts Bar nuclear plant on Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Spring City, Tenn.

Watts Bar at a glance

Location: TVA facility is built on a 1,770-acre site on the Tennessee River below the Watts Bar dam near Spring City, Tenn. History: Construction began in 1973, was suspended in 1985 and resumed for Unit 1 in the 1990s. Unit 1 began generation in 1996. Work to complete Unit 2 was resurrected in 2005. Type of reactors: Twin Westinghouse pressurized water reactors Power output: Each unit can generate 1,150 megawatts, enough electricity to supply 650,000 homes. Investment: TVA spent more than $6 billion on Unit 2 and since 2007 is spending another estimated $4.2 billion to finish Unit 2. It is the most expensive construction project ever in Tennessee. Status: Unit 1 is at full power; TVA projects Unit 2 should be finished sometime between September and next June. Staff: 1,050 full-time TVA employees; 2,600 temporary construction workers at Unit 2, most of who will be phased out by this summer Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

SPRING CITY, Tenn. - Nearly 42 years after the Tennessee Valley Authority began its construction, the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is nearing completion and will be put to a key performance test next month.

Nearly 2,600 contract and TVA employees are working around the clock to finish the building - and rebuilding - of the first nuclear reactor to be added to America's electric grid in nearly two decades.

Mike Skaggs, the TVA senior vice president who is heading construction at Watts Bar, said Wednesday he is confident Watts Bar Unit 2 will be ready to generate power within the next year.

"We're feeling pretty good about meeting our schedule and finishing up the unit prior to June 2016," Skaggs said during a tour of the project Wednesday. "But we've got a lot of challenges and risks ahead of us and we're not as worried about meeting our schedule as we are in making sure that when Watts Bar comes online it is safe and of high quality."

After years of starts and stops, redesigns and cost overruns, Skaggs said the unit will be ready in June to begin "hot functional testing." The goal is to ascertain how the equipment performs under the pressure and heat the reactor will eventually generate to turn massive turbines to generate power.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to decide soon whether to grant an operating license so TVA can load nuclear fuel and begin operating the reactor.

Watts Bar Unit 2 is expected to be the last reactor finished among those started a generation ago, before accidents at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 and Japan's Fukushima Daiichi in January 2006 slowed the U.S. industry. Watts Bar also will be the last licensed under the NRC's former two-step licensing process, which has been replaced by a single combined operating license for newer plants.

The startup is gaining global attention and attracted former EPA administrator and former New Jersey governor Christine Whitman here Wednesday to tour the project.

Whitman, who praised TVA's work at Watts Bar as "impressive," said nuclear plants, once built, can still provide power at lower operating costs than fossil fuels and without the carbon emissions and air pollutants of coal, diesel, biomass or even natural gas.

But nuclear power requires utilities to take a longer economic view, given the multibillion-dollar expense and years-long construction time lines for new reactors.

"There is too much emphasis on the short-term cost reduction versus the long-term savings," Whitman said.

TVA started the twin-reactor plant here in 1973 but stopped work in 1985. Unit 1 wasn't completed until 1996 - the last new nuclear reactor built in America - and work on Unit 2 restarted in 2007. Completion was supposed to take five years and cost $2.5 billion, but TVA officials acknowledged later that the estimate was not solid. Deadlines were not met, the leadership team had to change and the project would need another three years and $1.7 billion.

Still, Unit 2 will still cost only about half of the $8 billion to $10 billion cost per reactor at Plant Vogtle, being built in Georgia by Southern Nuclear Co.

Tom Wallace, the senior manager of operations at Watts Bar, has worked at the TVA facility since 1979 and seen its ups and downs.

"I would never leave this plant until I see it [Unit 2] come online," Wallace said. "I never thought it would take this long, but we've learned a lot of lessons and I think we're operating better and safer than we ever have."

But nuclear power critics have questioned why the NRC is not doing more to ensure the reliability and safety of Unit 2 equipment that has been installed but never used over the past four decades.

"The NRC must address aging management issues at Watts Bar Unit 2 prior to issuing its operating license by requiring TVA to develop an aging management program that is reviewed and accepted by NRC consistent with the process used by the agency in the relicensing of Browns Ferry and Sequoyah," said David Lochbaum, nuclear safety director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Skaggs said most of the Unit 2 reactor, including its turbine, rebuilt generator, control room panels and even wiring and piping, has been replaced. Watts Bar also is the first reactor to fully comply with the NRC rules for safety backup systems adopted in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.