5 November 2013

Forty Years Later—US Watts Bar 2 Project Allegedly “On Time and Within Budget”

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) stated on 29 October 2013 that completion of the Watts Bar reactor unit 2 is on schedule and within its budget with scheduled for operation from December 2015. Construction of the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) began in 1973, located in Rhea County, southeastern Tennessee approximately 50 miles northeast of Chattanooga.

In a year of negative developments for the U.S nuclear industry it is perhaps not surprising that the near completion of the Watts Bar unit 2 reactor has been presented as good news. However, to claim that the reactor completion is “on schedule and within budget”, as stated by the TVA , completely fails to reflect the deeply troubled history of the Watts Bar reactor since its construction began 40 years ago. As described in some detail in the WNISR 2012, construction delays and cost overruns plagued the reactor from the start. Construction was suspended in 1985 in part due to a decrease in electricity demand for TVA. In 2007, and based upon its projected increased energy demand, the TVA board approved a 5-year plan to complete Watts Bar 2.

However, by 2012 TVA admitted that “the project had not been successful in meeting its construction schedule... and that previous efforts at project recovery were not successful.” The completion cost also escalated from 2.5 billion in 2007 to between 4-4.5 billion.

As when construction was suspended in 1985, TVA is also facing a range of challenges to its future operations. Earlier this year, it lost its largest single customer, the Paducah uranium enrichment plant, and is confronted with the biggest drop in power demand in its 80-year history with a resultant need to rethink its future power plans. TVA’s 2011 integrated resource plan (IRP), which covered the next 20 years, including plans to expand nuclear power, is now out of date. The TVA President recently admitted that “it’s time for us to really hone in on cost management and efficiency”. Consequently the TVA has recently launched a new IRP process.

In addition to future energy demand uncertainties and large cost overrun of Watts Bar 2, safety issues remain unresolved both for the existing Watts Bar 1 reactor and the yet to open unit 2. Not least both reactors are ice condenser design which makes them vulnerable to hydrogen build up and containment failure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Near-Term Task Force on the Fukushima Daiichi March 2011 accident included requests for assessment of flood risk at U.S. nuclear power plants. In February 2013, the NRC censured TVA that they had been using outdated and inaccurate calculations in estimating the maximum potential flood threat should upriver dams be breached, the end result of which could be loss of cooling function and reactor meltdown.