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."
Over its history, the TVA has been one of America's most aggressively nuclear-oriented utilities. Former LADWP chief S. David Freeman tried to wean the agency from nukes after he became its chairman in 1977, canceling eight reactors already under construction. "It was not a popular move," he later observed wryly, but the plants "cost way too much money and resources, and had the potential to do greater harm than good." Freeman has urged the agency to sharply increase its commitment to solar power and other renewable sources.
Pacific Gas & Electric's Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo has been plagued by questions about its ability to withstand earthquakes -- earlier this year it was reported that PG&E installed nearly $1 billion of new equipment at the plant without performing required seismic tests. And that's not even to mention the questions that have been raised about PG&E's managerial competence in the wake of the San Bruno gas explosion, which leveled a neighborhood and killed eight persons.
The fundamental problem of the U.S. nuclear power program may have been that it was placed under the management of the nation's power utilities, which were ill-equipped to manage a technology vastly more complicated than any it had dealt with up to that point. The industry expanded rapidly through the 1970s, a period known to historians as the "Great Bandwagon Market." But flaws in the program were becoming clear: nuclear plants were expensive to build, produced waste that was impossible to dispose of safely and generated power far more expensive than had been projected.
Then came 1979 and Three Mile Island. Suddenly, nuclear power stopped growing. For nearly four decades not a single new reactor was ordered, and scores of earlier contracts were canceled. The technical questions about nuclear generation had not been solved: the technology was not mature and still so willful that it taxed to the limits the management ability of every utility that took it on -- right up to 2013, and Edison's abandonment of San Onofre after a failed major upgrade.
Watts Bar 2 may not solve these problems. The plant's ice-condenser design, which relies in part on supplies of ice to cool the reactor in an emergency, dates to the 1960s and has inspired skepticism from nuclear experts for decades. In part, that's because it's supposed to allow plants to be built with thinner containment structures. But in 1999, an assessment by Sandia National Laboratories found ice-condenser plants to be "substantially more sensitive to early containment failure" than similar plants with other systems.
TVA officials cite "extensive refurbishments, replacements and improvements" in asserting that the new implementation of its old plant will be "a safe, high quality nuclear unit."
"Watts Bar has the distinction of having the last nuclear plant to come online in the 20th century and ... the first to come online in the 21st century," the TVA says. That may not be the best advertisement for nuclear as an energy source for the future.