Energy

US Activates First New Nuclear Reactor In 20 Years

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter

America’s first new nuclear reactor in 20 years went online early Monday morning after 44 years of construction.

The reactor is now operating at low power levels and will soon begin producing and selling 1,150 megawatts of electricity to the Tennessee Valley, powering roughly 1.3 million homes when combined with the plant’s other reactor.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) started construction on Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor 44 years ago. Work ended in 1985 after more than $1 billion was already spent, due to a construction scandal involving contractors paying off corrupt agency officials. The project was 80 percent complete before the scandal stopped construction. The TVA revived the project in 2007, at a time when nuclear power seemed poised to make a comeback.

Building the new reactor was initially projected to cost $2.2 billion, but costs increased to $4.7 billion due to overruns and new compliance standards implemented in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

“This milestone is the result of the hard work by Watts Bar employees supported by the entire TVA nuclear team,” Joe Grimes, the plant’s chief nuclear officer, told a local news channel. “While this achievement is important, safety remains our top priority.”

America currently operates 99 nuclear reactors across 61 commercially operated nuclear power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration. The average nuclear plant employs between 400 and 700 highly-skilled workers, has a payroll of about $40 million and contributes $470 million to the local economy, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The Watts Bar plant will support an estimated 1,000 full-time jobs.

Of the 59 new nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, only four of them are being built in the U.S., just enough to compensate for shutting down older reactors. The average American nuclear reactor is 35-years-old, nearly obsolete by modern design standards and near the end of its operating license. Within the past two years, six states have shut down nuclear plants and many other reactors are risking premature retirement.

Instead of building more modern reactors, the government is planning to simply extend the operating licenses against the advice of its own technical staff. The country’s youngest nuclear plant, Tennessee’s Watts Bar 1, entered service in 1996. America’s oldest operating reactors — Oyster Creek in New Jersey and Nine Mile Point in upstate New York — entered service in 1969.

Nuclear energy provides 19 percent of the nation’s electricity, but struggles to compete against heavily subsidized solar and wind power or cheap natural gas.

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