Unit 2 at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant became the United States’ first new reactor to reach commercial operation in two decades this fall.

Reactor operator and Rockwood, Tenn., Local 1323 unit steward Bill Hahn inside the control room during the testing phase for Watts Bar's Unit 2.

The achievement was the final step in a construction project that has spanned more than 43 years and employed thousands of IBEW members along the way.

“This second reactor at Watts Bar has been a long time coming,” said Tenth District Vice President Brent E. Hall, “but we’re proud to have been a key part of its construction, and now, its operations. Nuclear is still the only reliable source of emissions-free baseload power, so it’s exciting to see a new reactor come online even as others around the country are shutting down.”

The journey at Watts Bar has indeed been a long one. In 1973, construction began on two planned Westinghouse pressurized water reactors along the banks of the Tennessee River, located about halfway between the cities of Knoxville and Chattanooga. The site joined the Watts Bar dam and the TVA’s first coal plant, both completed in 1942, to create the nation’s only power complex that generated electricity using hydro, coal and nuclear facilities.

In 1985, with both reactors well under construction, TVA pulled the plug on Unit 2, citing less-than-anticipated demand for power in the region. Unit 1 construction continued, and that reactor became commercially operational in 1996. But in the 20 intervening years, the coal plant closed and the lure of Unit 2’s potential 1,150-megawatt output became too strong to ignore. 

In 2007, the building process started back up, but new regulations put in place after 2011’s Fukushima disaster in Japan slowed progress, requiring new modifications and extra costs. In the end, Unit 2 was “substantially completed” in August 2015, having employed nearly 500 IBEW electricians during its construction, most of them from Chattanooga Local 175. It achieved commercial operation a little more than a year later on Oct. 19, 2016.

“We’re proud of the work we did on this second unit at Watts Bar,” said Local 175 Business Manager Gary Watkins. “Over the years, Watts Bar has provided our local with a lot of work, and it’s really rewarding for our members to see it finally powering this community.”

Watts Bar’s two units are expected to provide electricity to more than 1.3 million homes, joining five other TVA reactors to supply more than one-third of the region’s total generating capacity.

Since coming online, reactor operator Bill Hahn, who is also steward of the operations unit for Rockwood, Tenn., Local 1323, said the new unit has nearly doubled the size of his bargaining unit, bringing it to around 100 people. Even more employees have been added in the electrical maintenance and instrument mechanic classifications.

At present, four new nuclear reactors are under construction in the U.S., two in South Carolina and two more in Georgia. In Michigan and Texas, licenses have been granted for the future construction, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of reviewing five additional applications.

Even with that good news, however, the future of nuclear power is in an uncertain place. Nearly a dozen nuclear plants have announced plans to shut down across the country in recent years, including the anticipated closure of California’s Diablo Canyon plant in 2025, revealed in June. More could be on the way.

IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter said the trend is troubling, particularly given how much wind and solar it takes to replace a single nuclear reactor. “The ability of nuclear to produce consistent, zero-emission baseload power isn’t replicable with wind or solar,” he said. “We need base load nuclear and coal to provide stability for the system to keep the lights on, and simply replacing large base load units with renewables won’t do the trick. It’s important that elected officials get behind nuclear power in a way we haven’t seen them do for many decades now.”

Joe Grimes, TVA’s executive vice president of generation and chief nuclear officer agreed. “Nuclear power remains the only source of carbon-free energy that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “TVA believes that Watts Bar Unit 2, and other nuclear units like it across the Valley and the nation, represents a vital investment in our clean energy future.”

Homepage Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Tennessee Valley Authority.