The Tennessee Valley Authority has announced the Watts Bar 2 nuclear plant in southeast Tennessee is on schedule to begin producing electricity in December 2015, or more than 42 years after construction first began on the power plant.
When complete, the plant is expected to generate about 1,100 megawatts, enough electricity to supply about 650,000 homes in the seven-state TVA region, which includes portions of southern and western Kentucky, but not this region.
The planned completion of the nuclear plant may come as a surprise for many who thought the controversial Watts Bar 2 project had been assigned to the history books years ago. Plans to complete the plant are a clear indication of how attitudes about nuclear power has shifted in the last 30 years.
At the time construction began on Watts Bar 2 — in Spring City, Tenn., 48 miles northeast of Chattanooga — TVA was committed to building a series of nuclear power plants to supply electricity to about 9 million people in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Most of those ambitious plans were never fulfilled as nuclear power — which was always controversial — quickly lost public support for several reasons. One was the popularity of the “The China Syndrome,” a movie starring Jane Fonda about a fictional accident at a nuclear plant. Another was an actual partial nuclear meltdown in one of the two Three Mile Island nuclear reactors in Dauphin County, Pa., on March 28, 1979.
Then came Chernobyl, a catastrophic nuclear accident on April 26, 1986, at the huge nuclear plant in what is now the Ukraine but was then part of the Soviet Union. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of western USSR and Europe.
However, TVA mothballed the Watts Bar 2 in 1985, which was before Chernobyl, mostly because of the cost. At the time the project was shut down, Watts Bar 2 was about half finished and had already cost TVA about $1.7 billion.
TVA actually again started construction on Watts Bar 2 in 2008, and it was scheduled to be operational in 2012. However, in April 2012, TVA announced the work would not be complete until 2015 and would take about $2 billion more than the $2.5 billion originally budgeted. TVA said at the time its initial budget underestimated how much work was needed to finish the plant and that it wasted money by not completing more design work before starting construction.
TVA is again a firm supporter of nuclear power. TVA Senior Vice President of Nuclear Construction Mike Skaggs said, “Nuclear plants make a lot of energy. They’re very safe and reliable.”
However, Skaggs admitted the time it takes to build a nuclear plant and the cost remain challenges that discourage even more plants being built.
Skaggs said one of the challenges at Watts Bar 2 is meeting new safety requirements implemented after the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear meltdowns in 2011. That includes reassessing the plant’s ability to withstand earthquakes and flooding.
While all nuclear plants have to meet the new requirements, Watts Bar 2 has to do so before it can get a license to operate. Other plants have more time.
Skaggs said others in the industry are watching Watts Bar 2 with interest as they evaluate whether building more nuclear plants is a good option. It is one of only three nuclear plants currently under construction in the United States.
“I think they’re watching our progress and the lessons we’re learning,” he said.
Is the renewal of construction of Watts Bar 2 an indication of a revival of the nuclear power in the United States? It is too early to tell, but both the most avid proponents of nuclear power and its harshest critics are watching closely what is occurring today in Spring Hill because it could well determine if nuclear power has a future in this country.
Kentucky law bans the construction of nuclear power plants and a 2012 legislative attempt to repeal that ban failed.