U.S. to Start Up First New Nuclear Power Reactor in Decades

In this April 29, 2015 photo, a home sits within view of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant cooling towers Unit 1, left, and Unit 2 near Spring City, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
In this April 29, 2015 photo, a home sits within view of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant cooling towers Unit 1, left, and Unit 2 near Spring City, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

In an immaculate control room at the Watts Bar nuclear plant, green bars flash on a large screen, signaling something that has not happened in the United States in two decades.

As control rods lift from the water in the core, and neutrons go about the business of splitting uranium atoms, life comes to a new nuclear reactor — the first in the country since its sister reactor here was licensed in 1996.

By summer’s end, authorities expect the new reactor at this complex along the Chickamauga Reservoir, a dammed section of the Tennessee River extending northward from Chattanooga, to steadily generate enough electricity to power 650,000 homes. Although the opening of a new nuclear facility used to draw protesters and angry rhetoric, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar reactor has been mostly welcomed by local residents — and even some advocates concerned about climate change.

“It’s a big step forward for clean energy, and we really have to be pushing that as hard as we can for the sake of the climate – all sources of clean energy, which includes nuclear,” said MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel.

He and a group of influential climate scientists, led by former NASA researcher James Hansen, have recently made a strong push for nuclear, arguing that the energy source “will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them.”

But while nuclear reactors account for the lion’s share of the carbon-free electricity generated in the United States, the industry faces this new set of circumstances in a state of near-crisis. A combination of very cheap natural gas and deregulated energy markets in some states has led to a growing number of plant closures in recent years.

Even as Watts Bar engineers and planners busily tested their new reactor, Exelon, the nation’s biggest utility for nuclear, with 23 reactors, announced that it would be closing two plants in Illinois, citing financial losses and the state’s failure to pass energy legislation that would help support nuclear plants.

“We are supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting, or simply replacing, to just kind of tread water,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz recently — before the Exelon news drove the point further home.

The turn for the industry could represent bad news for U.S. carbon emissions: As more plants shut down, and with wind and solar not yet able to offset the electricity-generating capacity of nuclear, emissions could actually increase in certain regions.

Yet even if the country decided tomorrow to recommit to nuclear power plants in the name of climate change, it would still take many years to build more of them. They also would be difficult to finance in many electricity markets. Watts Bar 2, the plant’s second reactor, is nothing if not a symbol of the travails involved in getting massive nuclear plants running — it was originally permitted in the 1970s, but construction halted in 1985.

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SOURCE: Chris Mooney 
The Washington Post