NRC Issues Watts Bar 2 Nuclear Power Plant Operating License

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued an operating license for a new nuclear power plant. The 40-year license was issued to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for the long-overdue Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor on Oct. 22.

The Watts Bar plant is located about 10 miles south of Spring City, Tenn. Ground was broken on Unit 2 in 1973. However, construction was suspended in 1985 when it was about 80% complete. In the years that followed, various pieces of equipment, such as pumps, motors, and valves, were salvaged for use in Watts Bar Unit 1 and for use in TVA’s Sequoyah plant. Construction resumed on Unit 2 in 2008 and it now appears that the unit will finally enter commercial operation late this year or in early 2016.

“After devoting more than 200,000 hours over eight years conducting extensive safety reviews and inspections, we’re satisfied Unit 2 is safe to operate and we’ve issued TVA the operating license,” said Bill Dean, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. “We already monitor Unit 1’s performance through our Reactor Oversight Process, which is used at all reactor sites throughout the country, and we’re adding Unit 2 to that system. Staff from our Region II office in Atlanta will ensure TVA meets its requirements as it loads fuel into Unit 2 and runs tests before the unit starts generating electricity.”

During a TVA media event to announce the news, Mike Skaggs, senior vice president of operation and construction for TVA, said that receiving the operating license means that the unit is substantially complete, but there is still much to be done before Watts Bar 2 enters commercial operation.

“We have several more weeks of activities to complete before we can load the fuel, and then we have several months of power ascension testing that we will complete to verify the reliability and operation of the systems in the plant,” Skaggs said.

Skaggs (Figure 1) noted that the fuel for the reactor is already onsite—stored in a new-fuel vault—and that remaining work on systems is in the final stages.



1. Mike Skaggs provides an update to media members on Oct. 22. Courtesy: TVA

“There are still a handful of pre-operational tests that need to be performed and then some functionality checks of equipment,” said Skaggs. “Once we get that work done, we go through a very deliberate process to validate that all the equipment that’s required to load fuel, in accordance with our license, is operable.”

At that point, the fuel will be loaded, followed by several months of testing. Physics testing leads the way, beginning at very low power and increasing over time. TVA will also have to shut the plant down several times to verify the proper operation of safety equipment.

When questioned about the timeline, William (Bill) D. Johnson, president and CEO of TVA, said, “The most important thing for us now, is to continue this track record of safe, reliable operation. And so Mike described the process, and we’re going to do that process and be very deliberate. We’re not going to be slow, but we’re going to be deliberate.”

Johnson said Watts Bar 2 would be generating power off and on over the next several months before the unit is technically in commercial operation. When exactly will the unit enter commercial operation?

“My answer is: It’s going to happen when—under a safe, reliable, well-informed process—we get to that point. That’s when it’s going to happen,” Johnson said (Figure 2).



2. Bill Johnson addresses media members with the Watts Bar facility as a backdrop. Courtesy: TVA

Skaggs made it clear that bringing a new nuclear unit online is a very difficult process. He said that in 2011, the project was estimated to be 40% complete and now it is 99% complete. It has been a unique and complex project, but the team developed and executed a plan to get it done.

“This is a hallmark day for the U.S. nuclear energy industry,” said Marvin Fertel, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. “The Nuclear Energy Institute congratulates TVA, Bechtel and other project participants on reaching this historic milestone.”

For more information about the project, see “Watts Bar Unit 2: A ‘Deferred Nuclear Plant’ Gets Back into the Game,” “First New Nuclear Unit in U.S. in Nearly 20 Years Is on Track to Begin Operating in 2015,” and “New U.S. Nuclear Plant, Watts Bar Unit 2 Is One Step Closer to Startup.”

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)