Friday, July 07, 2017

Watts Bar 2 Shuts Down

The first new atomic energy plant of the 21st century, Watts Bar 2, operated by the TVA had to be shut down after only six months of operation.  Failing condenser parts caused the generating station to be taken off-line on March 23rd.  The plant remains shut.  TVA has yet to locate the condenser problem which is critical to plant operation since this component returns steam driving electrical turbines back to water.    Once again, the extreme complexity of nuclear power generation has flummoxed an overly optimistic owner-operator.  The last new nuclear power facility to enter service is the plant's twin unit, Watts Bar 1, that came on-line in 1996.

Watts Bar 2 holds the dubious distinction of the longest construction period in US nuclear power, a whopping 43 years!  The condenser component is part of the original design, so consequently it is also outdated technology as welll as broken.  Such a long delay in producing commercial electricity added greatly to the plant's capital cost.  Construction got underway with an estimate of about $400 million in 1972.  The plant's total cost is now estimated at $6.1 billion.  Such skyrocketing construction costs are endemic to the nuclear power industry, and are largely responsible for making new plant construction uneconomic, even for industry enthusiasts.

A faulty condenser in a conventional fossil-fueled plant is not as critical as one in a nuclear facility.  A coal plant could be run for months before a shut-down was needed to fix the problem.  No such luxury exits with a hair-trigger nuclear boiler.  An operating condenser is absolutely critical for cooling a reactor running at full power, which is what TVA hoped to do during this peak summer cooling season.  NOT.  Accompanying  their mechanical problems, plant managers have created a toxic work atmosphere that intimidates employees who might be willing to report regulatory violations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  The NRC ordered TVA to improve the safety culture at Watts Bar.  But a consultant reported just three weeks ago that conditions haven’t improved. The report found that “mistrust permeates the [Watts Bar] organization,” Notwithstanding the chilling atmosphere, the NRC recorded 33 allegations against TVA in 2016, the highest in the country.  Quite a record: from 'too cheap to meter' to too expensive to generate in half a century.