SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

TVA Finally Receives Operating License for Watts Bar 2 Reactor


Federal regulators ignored lessons learned from Fukushima

Contact: Jennifer Rennicks, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, 865-235-1448


Knoxville, Tn. (October 22, 2015) ///PRESS RELEASE/// The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) drew strong criticism today for its decision to license a second nuclear reactor at the Watts Bar site on the Tennessee River, about fifty miles northeast of Chattanooga. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which started construction on the two-reactor nuclear plant in the early 1970s at a total estimated cost of $825 million, mothballed Unit 2 for several decades. Combined, Watts Bar experienced a cost overrun exceeding $10 billion. Watts Bar 2 represents the longest construction history of any nuclear reactor in the world.

“The nuclear industry is the only one that celebrates bringing a project online 37 years late and more than $10 billion over budget. Contrary to what TVA and the industry would like you to believe, Watts Bar 2 is really the last old reactor of the 20th Century,” said Dr. Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “This dinosaur of a reactor was supposed to be generating electricity in 1977 and TVA failed to bring it online on time and on budget. The Watts Bar Unit 2 project, plagued with management and construction problems since construction resumed in 2007, serves as the poster child for all that was and is still wrong with the nuclear power industry and the utilities that continue to ask ratepayers to support this extremely risky, expensive technology.”

Despite the recent construction completion, Watts Bar does not have the safety features of a modern reactor. It relies on the antiquated “ice condenser” containment design that has not been used for reactor construction in decades. Nor has the reactor been re-designed to anticipate the earthquake and flooding risks revealed by TVA’s post-Fukushima investigations. The NRC has postponed any decisions about whether to require design changes until after the reactor begins operation.

“It is shocking to realize that an operating license has now been granted despite the fact that Watts Bar Unit 2 was not adequately designed to withstand earthquakes and floods in light of the post-Fukushima analysis. The NRC should have made it a top priority to ensure that safety equipment is protected in the event of reasonably foreseeable severe earthquakes. Instead, that review will not occur until after Watts Bar Unit 2 begins operating,” said Sara Barczak, high risk energy choices program director with SACE. “We again ask why was a reactor that has been under construction since the early 1970s rushed through the last steps of the licensing process? By failing to make a decision on our claims prior to the issuance of the operating license, the NRC Commissioners have overlooked these serious safety issues that will now be addressed after-the-fact and outside of public scrutiny.”

Diane Curran, SACE’s attorney, stated, “By postponing the post-Fukushima safety review after Watts Bar 2 received its operating license, the NRC failed to provide the public with the reasonable level of safety protection that is guaranteed by the Atomic Energy Act and thus has evaded the public accountability provided by licensing hearings.”

Additional Information:

The operating license was issued after NRC Commissioners last month rejected a petition filed by SACE in May regarding post-Fukushima investigations which demonstrate that the Watts Bar site is subject to greater earthquake risks than it is designed to withstand.* SACE requested that the Commission review a decision made in April by an NRC licensing board, arguing that the board violated the Atomic Energy Act when it refused to grant the organization a hearing on its contention that the NRC’s operating license review for Watts Bar Unit 2 should have covered updated information about seismic risks to the reactor’s safety equipment.

SACE had corresponded with the NRC regarding the Fukushima recommendation and Watts Bar 2 prior to filing the contention in February 2015, but failed to receive satisfactory responses. In June 2014, SACE’s counsel wrote to then-NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane to express the organization’s concern that TVA was conducting its post-Fukushima seismic and flooding reviews apart from the licensing process and did not intend to complete those reviews until after the operating license proceeding had concluded.

In November 2014, William M. Dean, NRC’s Director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation responded that for purposes of licensing Watts Bar reactor Unit 2, the NRC is considering “the current design-basis hazards of record” – i.e., the earthquake and flood risks that formed the basis for Watts Bar’s construction permit in the 1970s. Mr. Dean assured SACE that the NRC would not license the reactor if it could not be operated safely under the 1970s design basis conditions. He also said that the NRC would need “several years” to complete the post-Fukushima evaluations and that when they were finished, the NRC would determine “if safe operation requires additional regulatory action.” In the meantime, he noted that the Fukushima Task Force had already concluded that “continued licensing activities do not pose an imminent risk to public health and safety.”

Resources: Article co-authored by SACE’s Sara Barczak on October 8, 2015 for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists outlined the long, troubled history of Watts Bar and subsequent LA Times October 12, 2015 column by Michael Hiltzik; SACE’s February 2015 contention; TVA’s response and the NRC staff’s response and SACE’s final response filed in mid-March along with the corresponding press release. SACE’s May 2015 petition for review and press release and the NRC’s September 2015 rejection of SACE’s appeal. Information on the NRC’s licensing process is here and TVA’s information on Watts Bar 2 is here, including a project timeline.

* The NRC put Watts Bar 1 and 2 in “Group 1,” reactors with the greatest earthquake vulnerability and therefore the highest priority for completing seismic risk evaluations. Watts Bar had to follow the NRC’s “Expedited Approach” which is described as “A near-term licensee evaluation to be completed by December 31, 2014, for CEUS [central and eastern United States] plants whose re-evaluated hazard exceeds the current design basis for the safe shutdown earthquake hazard level.” See the May 9, 2014 Letter from NRC to All Power Reactor Licensees and Holders of Construction Permits in Active or Deferred Status on the Enclosed List re: Screening and Prioritization Results Regarding Information Pursuant to Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations 50.54(f) Regarding Seismic Hazard Re-Evaluations for Recommendation 2.1 of the Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights From the Fukushima Daiichi Accident.


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