After more than 20 years of trials and tribulations, the Watts Bar 2 nuclear power plant in Tennessee is finally online and providing power to the local area. This achievement, one actually 43 years in the making, has been fraught with design flaws and budget overruns that have kept the power plant from becoming active on schedule.

The Promise
In 1973, when nuclear power was a new and exciting idea, Tennessee power company TVA made an ambitious promise: to bring online not one but two nuclear power plants designed to provide power to 1.3 million homes in the area. Unfortunately, before the plants could even go live, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the full-scale nuclear disaster at Chernobyl shocked the world.

These two events caused many people to grow scared of nuclear power and, as a result, the power plants of the era fell out of favor with the public. No one wanted to live in an area where these types of scares could be a regular occurrence, no matter how fundamentally safe the technology might become.

In spite of the dearth of public support, the first Watts Bar plant went online in 1996. It would be the last time a nuclear power plant would go live for nearly 20 years.

New Life
Watts Bar 2, the sister plant to the one that went live in 1996, was initially abandoned due to rising regulatory costs, concerns about safety and the fact that its construction was massively over budget.  The plant was originally supposed to cost $370 million to construct and bring online. It ended up costing $6.8 billion but was successfully brought online this year.

Its construction was not without opposition, however. After the Fukushima nuclear power plant melted down as a result of damage from an earthquake and tsunami that struck the area in 2011, fears about nuclear power resurfaced. As a result, the Watts Bar 2 plant went online under protest from local groups.

Still, 43 years after TVA made their initial promise, the Watts Bar 2 plant is finally live and producing power.

Safety Concerns
Other than the obvious concern about meltdowns, there are a great number of safety concerns to address before a power plant such as the Watts Bar 2 can come online, including:

  • Seismic Concerns — All nuclear power plants are designed to shut down in the event of a seismic event. This reactor shutdown, called a scram, happens automatically in the event of earthquake detection. While Tennessee is not a traditionally seismically active area, there have been a growing number of earthquakes in the central areas of the United States attributed to fracking, so it is definitely a concern to address.
  • Aging Equipment — Many of the nuclear power plants currently active were designed for a 30 or 40-year operating life, and many of these were built and brought online during the nuclear rush in the 1970s. These plants are beginning to reach the end of their operating life, so steps must be taken to prolong their usefulness safely and efficiently. Comprehensive safety testing and the replacement of old or deteriorating parts can help safely extend the operating life of these nuclear plants.
  • Decommissioning — For plants that cannot be maintained or no longer serve the same purpose they were designed for, safe and secure decommissioning processes need to be implemented. The United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a comprehensive list of steps to follow, including public involvement and notification, when a nuclear power plant shuts down permanently.

As a species, we need to be looking for more alternatives to fossil fuels. With the launch of the Watts Bar 2 power plant, we can hope that this heralds a new resurgence in the use of nuclear power. While it still has its risks, as both past and recent events displayed, it is currently the cleanest form of energy available and could help to break our dependence on fossil fuels.