First US Nuclear Reactor In 20 Years Is Fully Operational

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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The first U.S. nuclear reactor to be built in 20 years became fully operational Friday.

Watts Bar Unit 2 it is the first commercially operating nuclear unit since 1996. The new reactor was completed 43 years after construction began near Spring City, Tenn. The Federal government originally estimated the reactor would take only five years to complete.

“If you’re in the nuclear business, the sight behind me is a lovely sight,” Bill Johnson, president of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which built the reactor, told reporters. “It’s a sight we’ve been waiting for some years to see, which is steam coming out of both cooling towers, meaning that both units are running. You can hear that turbine rolling. It’s a great day.”

TVA, a government-owned utility, started construction on Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor 44 years ago, but construction was put on hold in 1985 — after more than $1 billion had been spent — due to a scandal involving contractors paying off corrupt TVA officials. The reactor was 80 percent complete before the scandal halted construction. TVA revived the project in 2007, when nuclear power seemed poised to make a comeback.

TVA’s new reactor will 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 new reactor was initially projected to cost $2.2 billion, but costs increased to $4.7 billion because of overruns and new compliance standards implemented in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

America currently operates 99 nuclear reactors across 61 commercially operated nuclear power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). 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 current youngest reactor, Watts Bar Unit 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 20 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2015, according to the EIA. Nuclear power struggles to compete against much more heavily subsidized solar and wind power or cheap natural gas.

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