America’s newest nuke plant shows why nuclear power is dying in the U.S.
Shortly after New Year’s Day, the Tennessee Valley Authority is expected to bring its newest nuclear power plant online.
The TVA says Watts Bar Unit 2 in Spring City, Tenn., about 50 miles north of Chattanooga, will be fully modern and superlatively safe — “the nation’s first new nuclear generation of the 21st century,” the utility says.
The truth is rather different. Not only is Watts Bar 2 not new, it could be a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with America’s nuclear power industry since it generated its first electricity at Shippingport, Pa., in 1958.
“Rather than exemplifying a fine technological achievement,” environmentalists Don Safer and Sara Barczak write on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “the history of Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 is a cautionary tale of the worst pitfalls of nuclear power and the federal regulatory system.”
As they observe, the history of Watts Bar is one of enormous cost overruns, antiquated design and unimaginable construction delays. Most of those features are shared with America’s nuclear power industry in general, which may explain why the industry is held in such low esteem and regarded with so much fear by the public that the last new nuclear plant to enter service in the U.S. is now nearly 20 years old — the 1996-vintage Watts Bar Unit 1.
Adding to the industry’s woes is its checkered record in California, which includes the premature mothballing of the San Onofre nuclear plant by Southern California Edison in 2013, and persistent questions about the safety of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo. The nationwide record creates an uphill battle for proponents of nuclear power such as the advocacy group Nuclear Matters, which maintains that expanding the nation’s nuclear capacity is a key to moving the nation toward a more reliable carbon-free electrical generating grid.
Watts Bar 2 holds the world record for the longest gestation of any nuclear plant in history, having been listed as “under construction” for 43 years. The project was launched in 1972 and suspended in 1985, when it was already 60% complete, Safer and Barczak observe. By then, despite an initial cost estimate of about $400 million, some $1.7 billion had been spent. The total cost is now estimated at $6.1 billion. TVA officials say that upgrades and improvements, including safety provisions implemented following Japan’s 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster, have made Unit 2 “like new.”