CAN AMERICA TURN ITS NUCLEAR POWER BACK ON?
Watts Bar is a meandering reservoir in east Tennessee, dotted with fishing resorts, church retreats, and a Boy Scout camp. It’s also home to a nuclear power plant, one that is as representative of the American experience with nuclear energy as the lake is representative of American summer.
Reactor 1 at Watts Bar was the last American nuclear reactor to come online in the 20th century—it began producing power in 1996, 23 years after construction started in 1973. The second Watts Bar reactor is scheduled to come online soon, making it the first new U.S. reactor of the 21st century. 20 years have passed.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns and operates Watts Bar, stopped construction on Reactor 2 in 1985, when energy prices fell too low and construction costs rose too high to justify continued investment. Construction finally resumed in 2007 with a plan for Watts Bar 2 to come online in 2013. Then the deadline shifted to November 2015. As of November 2015, Watts Bar 2 is expected to begin commercial operation in September 2016. Meanwhile, this re-start phase of the project alone has gone over budget by more than $2 billion. It is widely touted as a success story.
This is the face of nuclear development in the United States today: slow, over-budget, economically untenable. Yet the dream of a nuclear-powered society is still alive. Nationwide, we get about 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear. It produces the lion’s share (64 percent) of our clean energy, provided that by “clean,” you mean anything but fossil fuels. In addition to Watts Bar 2 there are four other reactors currently under construction in this country, signaling that perhaps America has a renewed interest in going nuclear.
Look abroad and there’s even more reason for nuclear advocates to be hopeful. China is leading a renaissance in nuclear energy: Today that country gets only 2.5 percent of its electricity from nuclear, but it has 21 reactors under construction, more in the works, and a growing business selling reactors to countries like Pakistan, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. This vigor marks a level of nuclear investment the world has not seen since the heyday of American atomic enthusiasm, when 58 reactors came online between 1965 and 1980.
Nuclear energy could make a comeback in this country, powering a future that’s less dependent upon coal and natural gas. Or nuclear energy could fade into oblivion, one shuttered power plant at a time—after all, 43 percent of Americans still would say “good riddance” to nuclear. What happens next depends on whether nuclear boosters can solve the three key problems that have plagued American nuclear power, and left places like Watts Bar in perpetual limbo.