SPRING CITY, Tenn. (AP) — Tom Wallace started working at the Watts Bar nuclear plant as a young man in 1979, hoping he could eventually become a reactor operator.
It remains a work-in-progress for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Wallace, 55, is still finishing that plant 36 years later, one of the longest building projects in U.S. history. In a bizarre turn, what could soon become the newest U.S. nuclear plant is a piece of 1970s-era technology.
In the time it took to build it, Wallace raised two daughters and now has grandchildren. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has designed a generation of entirely new plants now being built in Georgia and South Carolina.
TVA vastly overestimated the demand for electricity decades ago. In 1966, it announced plans to build 17 nuclear reactors in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. By 1985, TVA canceled plans for almost half those reactors because of a slumping economy and spiraling construction costs.
The construction of Watts Bar 1 proved a big mess. Regulators approved construction in 1973. A dozen years later, TVA officials requested permission to load the plant’s radioactive fuel. However, whistleblowers raised concerns about construction, prompting lengthy delays and inspections. In a 1995 summary, NRC inspectors reported they found poorly welded metal, electrical cables that were damaged during installation, and quality assurance records with missing or incorrect information.
It took until 1996 to get the first reactor running.
Federal safety regulators will decide in the coming weeks whether to grant the plant an operating license. Johnson said the facility expects to load its nuclear fuel toward the end of the summer and gradually start operations.
Construction got off to a rough start, with an audit by TVA’s Office of the Inspector General accusing program managers of being ineffective, failing to provide enough oversight and not disclosing budget problems. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission fined the utility $70,000 in 2013 for failing to verify all parts purchased for the plant met quality rules. TVA officials said they tracked down every single part, and none of them proved defective. After a management shakeup, construction appears to have improved.
The Union of Concerned Scientists wants the commission to make the utility monitor the plant for aging since the facility is not brand new.