Under NRC’s Watchful Eye — New Commercial Nuclear Power Plant Comes on Line

Joey Ledford
Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The nuclear power industry notched a significant milestone last week when the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 2 began commercial operations. It was the nation’s first new generating unit to come on line in 20 years.

More than 350 NRC staff members were involved in the construction inspection and project management effort for Watts Bar 2
More than 350 NRC staff members were involved in the construction inspection and project management effort for Watts Bar 2.

Ironically, the last unit to come on line before Watts Bar Unit 2 was its sister unit, Watts Bar Unit 1, which began commercial power production in 1996.

For the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it was just another day at the office – the resident inspector office at the plant near Spring City, Tenn., northeast of Chattanooga. Several months before, the NRC had begun and then completed a gradual transition from construction inspection to operational inspection.

The Watts Bar units have a unique history. Both trace their lineage to 1973. Both units had lengthy construction hiatus periods, with Unit 2’s obviously lasting quite a bit longer.

Resumption of construction at Watts Bar hit a high gear in 2008 and during the next eight years, the NRC’s Region II-based construction inspection staff, supplemented by inspectors from headquarters in Rockville, Md., logged more than 127,000 hours making sure Unit 2 was built according to its design specifications. More than 350 NRC staff members were involved in the construction inspection and project management effort. The NRC also expended considerable inspection activity during the unit’s lengthy pre-operational testing phase.

Now, however, Watts Bar is a twin-unit operating facility. Three NRC resident inspectors currently act as the agency’s eyes and ears at the Watts Bar site as Unit 2 transitions to the agency’s baseline inspection program for operating units. It will take about a year before that process is completed.

Even though Watts Bar was designed in the 1970s, it was licensed to today’s standards, including all the updated safety enhancements required by the NRC, including post-Fukushima upgrades and cybersecurity requirements.

With the addition of Watts Bar Unit 2, TVA now has seven nuclear units operating in Alabama and Tennessee.

An Era Ends at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

Shortly before 1 p.m. Monday, operators in the control room of the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant pushed a red button, initiating an automatic shutdown of the reactor. So ended commercial operations for the nation’s smallest nuclear power plant, located along the Missouri River, about 20 miles north of Omaha, Neb.

fcsWhen it happened, just as it had done when the plant began operations 43 years earlier, the NRC had staff onsite to ensure events unfolded as planned, systems functioned as designed and public health and safety were protected.

“The shutdown was done in a very professional manner,” said Geoff Miller, a branch chief in the NRC’s Division of Reactor Projects, who oversees the plant from the NRC’s Region IV office in Arlington, Texas. By his side was Lindsay Brandt, a reactor inspector from the Region IV office, who also monitored the shutdown.

Max Schneider, the Senior Resident Inspector at Fort Calhoun, was in the plant monitoring the shutdown and checking to ensure that all plant systems responded as designed. “Everything went very well. There were no issues with plant equipment,” said Schneider, who reported to the site in June 2014 after serving as a Resident Inspector at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Massachusetts.

“I’ve watched lot of plant shutdowns prior to maintenance and refueling outages,” Miller said.  “Usually there is a lot of tension and excitement in the air in anticipation of events to follow but there was not a lot of that Monday. Things were subdued.”

The Omaha Public Power District’s Board of Directors voted several months ago to shut down Fort Calhoun for commercial reasons.

Brandt will remain at the plant for another three or four weeks and then return to the NRC’s Region IV, where she will resume other duties. Schneider will remain onsite for six months to a year to monitor post shutdown activities and ensure a safe transition from commercial operations to decommissioning mode.

Inspectors from the NRC’s Region IV office will conduct periodic inspections to ensure that spent fuel is being stored safely and securely in the plant’s water-filled spent fuel pool and in dry cask canisters while it remains onsite. The NRC will also conduct periodic inspections of decommissioning activities.

Within 30 days, Omaha Public Power District officials are expected to submit a letter to the NRC certifying the permanent cessation of commercial operations and stating that all of the radioactive fuel has been permanently removed from the reactor vessel. When this happens, OPPD will have surrendered its authority to operate the reactor or reload fuel in it. They have two years in which to file a report with the NRC, describing their plans for decommissioning the plant.