September 3, 2014: Spring City, Tennessee – One of the keys to the Tennessee Valley Authority's efforts to meet strict new rules for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions lies behind walls more than a foot thick and beneath more than a half-million pounds of metal.
The walls form a massive concrete containment building at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant, where workers this summer have been putting the finishing touches on the utility's latest reactor — a signal that a federal agency that once bet heavily on atomic energy is coming back to the nuclear table.
That signal is reinforced by new EPA rules for reducing emissions, and by the utility's continued efforts to have a broad mix of energy sources. Ironically, though, some of the biggest objections are coming from environmentalists, who think nuclear is a bad idea to begin with.
TVA in recent years has been moving away from coal, which produces harmful pollutants when burned and is one of the nation's leading sources of GHG emissions. Nuclear — and cleaner-burning natural gas — could help fill that void.
TVA officials say they are on pace to start operating the new Watts Bar reactor — the 2nd at the power plant — in December 2015. That could make Watts Bar the nation's 1st new civilian nuclear power unit to come online in the 21st century.
When the new reactor starts up, it will produce 1,150 MegaWatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power the equivalent of 650,000 homes - all without contributing to Tennessee's carbon footprint, the climate-altering emissions that attract the EPA's attention.
But the Watts Bar project also illustrates the challenges facing the U.S. nuclear industry. Nuclear plants are expensive, complicated, and time consuming to build. They require huge sums of upfront capital — the new Watts Bar reactor could cost as much as $4.5 billion.
A visit to Watts Bar shows why. The sheer scale of what TVA is building there exceeds the scope of any normal utility project.
There are 3,100 workers on the project. The core barrel is 33 feet in height and weighs 282,000 pounds. The reactor head, which covers the reactor at the top, weighs 298,700 pounds.
TVA officials say the Watts Bar project is 90% complete, but acknowledge that the work could stretch into 2016, particularly if TVA runs into any regulatory hurdles.
"Most of the major construction work is concluding," said Mike Skaggs, TVA's senior vice president for nuclear construction and operations. "We are making systems, structures and components like new, and are making sure they operate according to TVA, industry and technical standards."
Underneath all of the Watts Bar work lies a philosophical debate about nuclear energy, a reprise of a bitter fight that began in the 1970s.
There are only 3 utilities — including TVA — that have reactors under construction in the United States. The others are in South Carolina and Georgia.
By contrast, there are 8 reactors with decommissioning in progress, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as companies find it too expensive to repair aging units or can't compete economically with cheap natural gas.
But with concerns about global warming prompting nuclear to get another look, the long-dormant battle over the wisdom of pursuing it at all has intensified once again.
The EPA has proposed new rules to cut carbon emissions 30% at existing power plants by 2030. The federal agency estimates that Tennessee can get a 20% to 22% reduction just from turning to nuclear.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has said nuclear will be part of the mix in the future. The new rules could boost nuclear plants fighting for profitability. 4 previous Republican EPA administrators also are pushing hard for nuclear energy.
The economics of climate change and EPA regulation could help drive the resurgence of nuclear, said Dan Lipman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. He said electricity demand hasn't fully come back to pre-recession levels, reducing the need for new power plants of any kind.
But if pressure remains high to cut emissions and combat climate change, and if gas prices spike upward again at some point, then nuclear energy once again becomes attractive.
"The point is, the country is moving toward non-emitting sources of electricity," said Lipman, the NEI's executive director for policy development and supplier programs. "We believe over time that new nuclear plants are going to be built."
Along with the environmental benefits, Lipman said the economy gets a boost from the massive building projects necessary to bring nuclear back. Tennessee is a perfect example, he said.
According to the NEI, the nuclear industry employs more than 2,200 people in the state, and there are 500 companies here that supply $162.5 million a year in services, material and nuclear fuel.