A worker cleans around the Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant Unit 2 reactor vessel on July 24, 2014 in Spring City, Tenn. The Tennessee Valley Authority continues to press ahead with its nuclear strategy. Its Watts Bar 2 unit is scheduled to be operational in December 2015 and when it is, it will be the first new nuclear power unit to open in North America in the 21st century. / Larry McCormack, The (Nashville) Tennessean
SPRING CITY, Tenn. -- One of the keys to the Tennessee Valley Authority's efforts to meet strict new rules for reducing greenhouse gas 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 TVA officials say they are on pace to start operating the federal utility's latest reactor in December 2015.
That means Watts Bar could have the nation's first new commercial nuclear power unit to come online in the 21st century. As the second reactor at the plant, it will produce enough electricity to power 650,000 homes.
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, nearly double earlier estimates.
Only two other utilities across the USA have new nuclear reactors under construction. The South Carolina Electric & Gas Company has two units underway in Jenkinsville, S.C. The Southern Company also is building two near Waynesboro, Ga.
By contrast, eight reactors have 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.
If pressure remains high to cut emissions and combat climate change, and if gas prices spike upward again, then nuclear energy will once again become attractive, said Dan Lipman of the Nuclear Energy Institute.
But critics say nuclear isn't the way to go. Energy efficiency and renewable resources are better bets, they say. Nuclear plants don't produce greenhouse gas emissions but do generate waste that remains radioactive for millions of years.
"It is too slow, too expensive and too dangerous," the Sierra Club's John Coequyt said.
Mike Skaggs, TVA's senior vice president for nuclear construction, said the utility strives for a balanced portfolio of energy sources and that nuclear remains an important part.
"We don't want to put all of the proverbial eggs in one basket," he said.
Gang also reports for The (Nashville) Tennessean.
Read the original story: TVA's costly reactor illuminates nuclear challenge