By Michael Hiltzik
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.”
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.