TVA’s Watts Bar — the last old reactor of the 20th Century

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | December 5, 2014 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

At the end of October, I was able to attend a briefing of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Commissioners on the project status of TVA’s Watts Bar 2, which has been under construction since 1973 and was most recently “revived” in 2007. Amazingly, TVA and the nuclear industry is touting this as the first new nuclear generation of the 21st Century — when it really is “the last old reactor of the 20th Century.” (If you follow that hyperlink, please note that the project is not “On time/On budget” as they claim either. In fact, it’s billions of dollars over budget.) Currently fuel-loading is estimated to occur in mid-May 2015 with commercial operation possibly in December 2015.

Don Safer, former Board Chairman and current board member of the Tennessee Environmental Council who has long been concerned about TVA’s nuclear program and shares many of our same concerns, was asked to brief the Commission from his perspective. It was a very interesting briefing but also frustrating given the many unresolved issues that remain as TVA seeks to get approval for the reactor’s operating license, which is anticipated to occur in 2015. In my opinion, it also wasn’t a particularly forthcoming meeting. According to a licensee event report filed with the NRC, while the briefing for the NRC Commissioners was underway, “TVA conducted a briefing for government officials and other stakeholders regarding the decision to accelerate the Boone Reservoir annual drawdown after discovery of a sink hole near the base of the embankment and a small amount of water and sediment found seeping from the river below the dam.” This dam is upstream of the utility’s three nuclear plants, including Watts Bar. TVA then issued a press release about the situation, just over an hour after the NRC briefing concluded. I wondered why was this not mentioned during the NRC briefing?

Then in November, Mr. Safer presented a scaled-back version of his NRC presentation to the TVA Board at their November meeting in Nashville. We wanted to share this and recommend that readers access all the materials from the NRC briefing here, especially the detailed letter that was submitted to the Commissioners that encompasses many of our concerns with this beleaguered project. We added hyperlinks within Mr. Safer’s comments below to help one access additional, relevant information.

Comments from Don Safer before the TVA Board in Nashville, Tennessee on November 6, 2014:

I am Don Safer, a board member of the Tennessee Environmental Council. I live in Nashville. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Board.

Last Thursday, October 30, at the invitation of the Commission, I spoke to the Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners at their briefing on the Watts Bar Unit 2 Operating License Application. I have copies of my written statement for each board member and Mr. Johnson.

Watts Bar 2 is not “the first new reactor of the 21st Century” in reality it is the last old reactor of the 20th Century. Major components are already over 40 years old.

The Watts Bar and Sequoyah reactors are “ice condensers.” This peculiar, archaic, discredited design dates from the 1960’s. It relies on 2 to 3 million pounds of chipped ice hanging in baskets surrounding the reactor to allow for a weaker, smaller containment structure with half of the volume and failure pressure of dry containment. This makes ice condenser reactors far more vulnerable to containment failure. As far back as the 1970’s staff of the Atomic Energy Commission recommended the design be banned. The 1990 NRC NUREG-1150 study identified ice condensers as most likely U.S. reactors to suffer a catastrophic containment failure. No ice condenser reactors exist outside the United States.

Additional uncertainties and risk come from the well documented troubled Watts Bar construction history from 1973 to 1985 which caused an eleven year delay in the start-up of Unit 1.

Don Safer briefs four NRC Commissioners

There are serious unresolved questions about dam safety and cascading dam failures on the Tennessee River Reservoir System from previously unthinkable rain events like the Nashville flood of 2010, earthquakes, and spontaneous dam failure. Incredibly the revised hydrology study TVA has just submitted to the NRC uses outdated, inadequate seismic data.

Dam safety issues are underscored by the TVA announcement on the day of the hearing of a sinkhole at Boone Dam. The sinkhole was not disclosed at the hearing.

I asked the Commissioners:

  • To deny the operating license on the basis of the threat of a major accident.
  • To take the time to carefully analyze the seismic and hydrology issues thoroughly.
  • To not grant the license until there is a credible plan for a geologic repository for high level radioactive waste.
  • To resolve questions around high burnup fuel storage.
  • To require real-time, on-line comprehensive radiation monitoring around all nuclear facilities.
  • To require adequate liability insurance to cover the losses of a major accident.

I urge the TVA Board and management to abandon the 40-year old construction licenses at Bellefonte and the small modular reactor pilot project. Nuclear power is not clean energy.

All of the money being wasted on those projects should be invested in energy efficiency, renewables and building a truly new 21st Century energy system.

TVA should be a national leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

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