Going Green and Nuclear? First U.S. Reactor Built in Decades

Apparently the Obama admin is ok with nuclear activity, as long as it’s to save the planet from climate change. How do you feel about this, America?

In an immaculate control room at the Watts Bar nuclear plant, green bars flash on a large screen, signaling something that has not happened in the United States in two decades.

As control rods lift from the water in the core, and neutrons go about the business of splitting uranium atoms, life comes to a new nuclear reactor — the first in the country since its sister reactor here was licensed in 1996.

By summer’s end, authorities expect the new reactor at this complex along the Chickamauga Reservoir, a dammed section of the Tennessee River extending northward from Chattanooga, to steadily generate enough electricity to power 650,000 homes. Although the opening of a new nuclear facility used to draw protesters and angry rhetoric, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar reactor has been mostly welcomed by local residents — and even some advocates concerned about climate change.

“It’s a big step forward for clean energy, and we really have to be pushing that as hard as we can for the sake of the climate – all sources of clean energy, which includes nuclear,” said MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel.

He and a group of influential climate scientists, led by former NASA researcher James Hansen, have recently made a strong push for nuclear, arguing that the energy source “will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them.”

But while nuclear reactors account for the lion’s share of the carbon-free electricity generated in the United States, the industry faces this new set of circumstances in a state of near-crisis. A combination of very cheap natural gas and deregulated energy markets in some states has led to a growing number of plant closures in recent years.

Even as Watts Bar engineers and planners busily tested their new reactor, Exelon, the nation’s biggest utility for nuclear, with 23 reactors,announced that it would be closing two plants in Illinois, citing financial losses and the state’s failure to pass energy legislation that would help support nuclear plants.

“We are supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting, or simply replacing, to just kind of tread water,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz recently — before the Exelon news drove the point further home.

The turn for the industry could represent bad news for U.S. carbon emissions: As more plants shut down, and with wind and solar not yet able to offset the electricity-generating capacity of nuclear, emissions could actually increase in certain regions.

Yet even if the country decided tomorrow to recommit to nuclear power plants in the name of climate change, it would still take many years to build more of them. They also would be difficult to finance in many electricity markets. Watts Bar 2, the plant’s second reactor, is nothing if not a symbol of the travails involved in getting massive nuclear plants running — it was originally permitted in the 1970s, but construction halted in 1985.

That matters because the extent to which adding nuclear energy helps battle climate change depends not only on the nature of the electricity generation itself but also on the time frame. To not miss international targets, which seek to keep global warming below 2 degrees or even 1.5 degrees Celsius above late-19th-century levels, emissions cuts have to happen fast. But as Watts Bar itself demonstrates, new nuclear can take a long time to build.

“Nuclear cannot provide a short-term solution to climate change because it takes so long to bring new plants online,” said Allison Macfarlane, a professor at George Washington University and a former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Here in rural Rhea County — home to just more than 32,000 people, and where the Tennessee Valley Authority also controls the river itself with the Watts Bar dam — adding new nuclear seems a fairly uncontentious affair. In the cavernous room holding the Watts Bar plant’s twin turbines, which are driven by steam generated in the two nuclear reactors, an almost equally vast American flag hangs above a wall of windows.

The siting here of the country’s first new reactor in decades is no doubt in part because of the unique nature of the TVA, a New Deal-era government-controlled corporation with a vast base of municipal utilities and other large customers that buy its power.

“At a time when other regions of the country are relying on less-reliable sources of energy, our region is fortunate that TVA opened the last nuclear reactor of the 20th century and is opening the first reactor of the 21st century,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a major supporter of nuclear energy.

While hardly the country’s biggest nuclear installment in terms of sheer capacity to generate electricity, Watts Bar is no less overpowering. As you approach the site along two-lane highways, the plant’s two cooling towers — each more than a football field and a half in height — surge out of the landscape.

On a recent Tuesday, only one tower — Watts Bar 1, the one licensed in 1996 — could be seen wafting water vapor into the atmosphere. But that should change when Watts Bar 2 starts full operations.

Even then, the plant will represent a rather halting step into new nuclear in the United States. Original planning for this $ 4.7 billion unit occurred many decades ago, and rather than presenting any major technological departure, it uses a design quite consistent with the current U.S. fleet of 99 reactors. “Novel’s not typically the kind of word that you look for in nuclear,” said Joe Grimes, the TVA’s chief nuclear officer.

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