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Control operators Chris Pugado, left, and Billy Horton work in the unit 2 control room of TVA's Watts Bar nuclear plant Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Spring City, Tenn. TVA plans for the nuclear plant's second reactor unit to come online by the end of the year.

Regulators have completed final inspections of the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, clearing the way for expected issuance of an operating license for the nuclear unit 43 years after construction began.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors completed final pre-licensing tests this week at the new Watts Bar unit to verify the plant has been built in accordance with its design and required safety systems. NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said Friday a decision on issuing an operating license by the NRC could come "within a couple of weeks."

In a letter to TVA, NRC's acting regional administrator, Leonard Wert, said inspectors over the past eight years have checked and verified 560 items identified as necessary for the start-up of Unit 2 at Watts Bar.

"Construction of the facility has been substantially completed in conformity with the construction permit," Wert said in a 3-page letter this week given to NRC's top nuclear regulator. "There is reasonable assurance that the facility will be operated in accordance with the regulations."

The letter was the final NRC step before the top nuclear regulator for NRC in Rockville, Md., can issue the operating license and TVA can load nuclear fuel in the reactor. Once the license is granted and fuel loaded, TVA must still go through a series of start-up and power ascension tests to verify the adequacy of the reactor and its equipment before power is generated, probably sometime late in 2015.

The NRC commissioners this spring authorized William Dean, director of the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, to grant the operating license once TVA met all of its regulatory requirements.

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Unit 2 senior manager of operations Tom Wallace walks up the stairs to the Unit 2 cooling tower of TVA's Watts Bar nuclear plant Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Spring City, Tenn. TVA plans for the nuclear plant's second reactor unit to come online by the end of the year.

The operating license for Watts Bar Unit 2 expected to be issued later this month will be the first operating license for any reactor in the United States since TVA was granted an operating license for the first reactor at Watts Bar in February 1996.

Construction of both units at Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn., began in 1972, but work was suspended in 1988 when TVA halted its entire nuclear program due to safety concerns. Watts Bar Unit 1 was finished and licensed in 1996, and work on Watts Bar Unit 2 was restarted in 2007.

The initial $2.5 billion restart project for the Unit 2 reactor has ended up taking nearly three years longer and nearly $2 billion more to finish.

But TVA said this summer its work on Unit 2 was substantially completed, and TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the agency is getting ready to load fuel in the reactor and begin power testing once the operating license is granted.

NRC said there have been 64 inspections of the plant during construction and regulators will continue to monitor the startup of the unit, which will be the first new American nuclear power plant added to the U.S. electric grid in the 21st century.

TVA has about 1,500 workers at Watts Bar finishing up work on Unit 2 — down from a peak construction workforce of nearly 3,500 two years ago.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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