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.

Counting the Steps to a Final Watts Bar Unit 2 Decision

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

The NRC’s Commissioners have given the staff the authority to issue the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) a full-power operating license for Unit 2 at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant site in Tennessee. That permission has some strings attached, however, so we’re still months away from our final licensing decision.

wattsbarconstructionsriIf TVA is issued the license, Watts Bar 2 will be the first U.S. nuclear power plant to start operating since 1996, when Watts Bar 1 came online. TVA still has to satisfy the staff that several regulatory requirements for safe operation of Unit 2 have been met. We’re finishing up the licensing and inspection activities we need to conclude TVA is ready to load fuel and operate the reactor, which is near Spring City, Tenn.

We have to be satisfied not only that Unit 2 is safe to operate, but also that TVA can safely transition to operating two reactors at the site. We’re completing a few licensing actions needed to support dual-unit operation at Watts Bar. TVA also has to pass our remaining operational readiness inspections.

Other upcoming milestones include getting a recommendation from the NRC’s Region II Administrator, who has oversight responsibility for all inspections performed at Watts Bar 2. We also need to issue a couple supplements to the reactor’s Safety Evaluation Report.

TVA’s progress in completing construction and testing of Watts Bar 2 will directly influence our completion of the milestones. We may be able to make a licensing decision later this year. TVA has said repeatedly, however, that the actual operating license date depends on several factors and could shift as the final months’ work is completed. While we take TVA’s schedule into consideration for planning our licensing and inspection work, our priority is always on ensuring safety.

If we conclude Unit 2 is safe and ready to receive a license, TVA will still have to successfully complete several tests, including running the reactor at gradually increasing power levels, before the reactor can provide electricity to the grid. The NRC website has more information on the past few years of Watts Bar Unit 2’s licensing and inspection activities.

Watts Bar – Making History In Yet Another Century

Jeanne Dion
Project Manager
Watts Bar Special Projects Branch
 

Unit 1 at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn., has a claim to fame as the last U.S. commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the 20th century. Now, the Tennessee Valley Authority aspires to have its sister reactor (Watts Bar Unit 2) make its own historic claim.

Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.
Numerous cranes helped complete construction of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 1 containment building in front of the plant’s cooling towers in 1977.

If the NRC concludes that the reactor is safe to operate and approves its operating license next year, Watts Bar Unit 2 could become the first new commercial nuclear reactor to come online in the U.S. in the 21st century.

To understand a little of the history of Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, let’s rewind to a time when Schoolhouse Rock premiered and the first mobile phone call was made in New York City — a time predating the NRC. In 1973, the Atomic Energy Commission greenlighted construction of Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 under the “two-step licensing process,” where construction permits and operating licenses were issued separately.

In 1985, construction quality issues at its plants caused TVA to stop work at both Watts Bar Units. Eventually, TVA resolved the issues and completed construction of Unit 1, and the NRC issued its operating license in 1996.

Fast-forward to more recent activities. TVA decided in 2007 to reboot the Watts Bar Unit 2 construction and licensing process. They submitted an update to their original license application to the NRC in 2009.

Other recent applicants have elected to use the combined license application process, where we issue a single license to both construct and operate a nuclear power plant at a specific site. However, because of the unique history of Watts Bar Unit 2, TVA chose to continue under the two-step licensing process. So, NRC staff developed a regulatory framework and established a licensing approach tailored specifically to the project.

We updated our construction inspection program associated with the two-step licensing process to provide guidance that reflects current NRC practices. For example, the NRC staff identified areas for further inspection at Unit 2 by screening applicable communications, allegations and other open items in the review.

The NRC staff also developed inspection guidance specific to TVA’s refurbishment program, which replaces or refurbishes systems and components at Watts Bar Unit 2. TVA’s resolution of key safety issues and the continued progress of construction inspection activities drive our review schedule.

If the operating license is issued next year, the NRC’s job doesn’t just end. We’d continue to inspect start-up testing required for power ascension and to oversee that Unit 2 transitions into the NRC’s Reactor Oversight Process before it can begin producing commercial power.

And, of course, the Resident Inspectors, the agency’s eyes and ears at the plant, would continue to carry out day-to-day inspection work to ensure safety and security is monitored and inspected during licensing and throughout the transition to commercial operation.

For more information about the Watts Bar Unit 2 project, visit the NRC’s website. There will be a Commission briefing Oct. 30 at 9 a.m. on the license application review. You get details about the briefing from the meeting notice. We’ll also do a live webcast.