The cooling towers of Watts Bar 1, which was completed in 1996. TVA recently received the operating license for Watts Bar 2. Credit: TVA
A Tennessee nuclear reactor more than 40 years in the making now has its operating license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and will soon begin producing electricity for Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) customers. But environmental advocates say the Watts Bar 2 Reactor 50 miles northeast of Chattanooga is without modern safety features that would protect residents and the environment in the event of a natural disaster. Sara Barczak, high-risk energy choices program director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says while the NRC will continue extensive safety reviews, the license is cause for concern. “The licensing process offers a great opportunity for the public to engage and understand what’s going on,” she says. “Once that operating license has been issued, that door has closed and it’s very important to question TVA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to say, ‘Why did you rush this process?'” Barczak says the Watts Bar reactor utilizes a design not currently used in reactor construction, and has not been designed to anticipate the kind of earthquake and flooding risks revealed after the Fukushima incident in Japan in 2011. A statement from TVA says receipt of the license validates that Unit 2 has been built in a manner to ensure regulatory compliance. The TVA says it will be a few weeks before the initial fuel load for the reactor will be loaded into the unit. According to Barczak, the geographical risks of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters have changed since the reactor’s initial design more than four decades ago, and it is important to take proper precautions. “That area of the country now has different seismic or earthquake risks than what was determined back in the ’60s and ’70s,” she says. “So what is the rush? Why couldn’t these seismic evaluations have been done during the public scrutiny that occurs during a licensing proceeding?” The NRC says inspectors spent more than 200,000 hours and eight years conducting extensive safety reviews and inspections, and would require TVA to address any additional issues identified in the future.