Image: Watts Bar nuclear plant
Tennessee Valley Authority via AP file
The Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn., houses the last reactors built in the United States. One has been operating since 1996 and the second could be completed by 2012.
updated 10/9/2009 12:04:49 PM ET 2009-10-09T16:04:49

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is weighing the arguments for and against finishing a long-idled nuclear reactor at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar site.

The Sierra Club, the Tennessee Environmental Council and others told the commission at a hearing Tuesday that they worry the only commercial reactor now under construction in the United States will harm the Tennessee River and endanger surrounding communities.

They suggested TVA's massive coal ash spill upriver at Kingston is a reflection of the federal utility's management and that the 1960s-designed reactor will be out-of-date before it's even finished.

They worried about evacuation planning, feared additional spent nuclear fuel being stored at a Tennessee reactor and urged TVA to instead spend the money on renewable energy and conservation instead.

NRC officials listened without comment during the public meeting, held as part of the agency's preparation of an environmental impact review required for an operating license for the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor.

"These are all being evaluated," NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said of the public concerns. "And any new issues that come to light will be researched and incorporated into the study."

The report is expected sometime next year. Additional public meetings will be held before a final decision is made.

Completion in 2012?
TVA, which has already concluded the reactor poses no threat to the environment, is spending $2.5 billion over five years to complete construction on the 1,200-megawatt reactor by October 2012.

The reactor could supply electricity to 650,000 homes, just like its twin — the Watts Bar Unit 1 reactor that came online in 1996. Watts Bar Unit 1 is the newest of 104 operating reactors in the United States.

TVA nuclear executive Ashok Bhatnagar said Watts Bar Unit 1, which was completed after 20 years of delayed construction, "has operated very well" at nearly 90 percent capacity and expects Unit 2 to do the same.

Both reactors were unfinished when idled in 1985 because of safety concerns and no commercial demand for their power. Bhatnager said the lessons learned in completing Unit 1, including in some cases redoing previous work, are being used at Unit 2.

"We have gone through the historical review of all the documents, all the concerns, all the issues that were brought up ... and all those issues are being resolved right up front," the TVA executive said, noting the project is on schedule.

Activists cite coal ash spill
But Don Safer, board chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council, wondered if TVA has learned the lessons from the massive coal ash spill Dec. 22 at the Kingston Fossil Plant that sent 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic muck into a Tennessee River tributary and lakeside lots, and left a $1 billion cleanup.

"The same misguided priorities are at work," he said, "compromising public safety and increasing environmental risk with narrow, business-as-usual thinking dominated by protecting the short-term bottom line."

While Safer suggested Watts Bar Unit 2 will be as modern as "a 1965 Mustang," Bhatnager said the reactor will feature all the upgrades made at the Watts Bar Unit 1.

Whistleblower Ann Harris, a former TVA nuclear employee, cautioned the NRC to not "just accept whatever TVA hands you ... because they will lie. You can't trust TVA."

TVA is the nation's largest public utility, supplying nearly 9 million consumers in Tennessee and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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