published Friday, February 17th, 2012

Work on Watts Bar Nuclear Plant’s second reactor behind schedule and over budget

The cooling tower of the single operating reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant belches steam in Spring City, Tenn.
The cooling tower of the single operating reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant belches steam in Spring City, Tenn.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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Tennessee Valley Authority board members learned Thursday that the second reactor at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant will not be completed before 2014 and is over budget.

“We didn’t understand the complexity of the project as well as we should have,” TVA’s new nuclear chief, Mike Skaggs, told the board, blaming problems on “leadership.”

The reactor was initially to cost $2.5 billion and be completed later this year. TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said it may be April before he can say how late or over budget the plant will be.

“If I knew that I’d have told you before,” Kilgore said. “I don’t want to miss it again. We’re going to be very careful.”

Skaggs said TVA has brought in two independent assessments “to assure ourselves” of new adjustments and estimates.

Skaggs and Kilgore said the initial completion estimates were based on decades-old data from the construction of the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama.

But the plants have proven to be too different to compare, Kilgore said. They have different types of reactors, and Watts Bar has much less work space.

The 3,200 contract workers on board early last year at Watts Bar literally were too cramped to work, officials have said. By December, TVA had dropped the number of contractors to 2,077.

Skaggs said work performance has improved.

Kilgore said another problem was the work planning. For each individual job such as a valve installation, TVA provides a “work package” — a document that Kilgore likens to an operating manual for a car or appliance.

“These are like 3-inch notebooks,” Kilgore said, which means technicians must read 100 pages on site, an unwieldy requirement.

“We’ve got to be smarter than that. We have to divide it to what the crew can do today. Even a car manual has a quick index card. And we’ve got to be that user friendly,” he said.

Growing citizen interest

A month ago, TVA ordered an unpaid safety “stand down” at Watts Bar for about 1,000 Unit 2 contract workers after finding cables had been erroneously removed from Unit 1 — the operating reactor — in December.

No one was hurt, and public safety wasn’t compromised, but TVA officials called the halt a “time out” to assess problems and remind workers to focus on safety.

On Thursday, TVA board members made no comment on the Watts Bar problems, but some citizen groups asked that the utility reassess its strategic plan to emphasize renewable energy and support consumer efficiency.

With a different approach, “there would be no need for more coal and nuclear sources and no need for creative financing,” said Tennessee Sierra Club’s Mary Mastin. She referred to TVA’s plan to sell plants and lease them back to raise construction money to complete Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama.

TVA is near its congressionally imposed debt limit, and managers have acknowledged that the sale/lease plan adds to operating costs.

John McFadden, director of the Tennessee Environmental Council, presented a petition signed by more than 900 people asking that TVA reinstate the previous levels for Generation Partners, a plan to help residents and small businesses install renewable energy systems. TVA limited the program to small systems last year.

J.W. Randolph asked the board to instruct TVA not to renew its contract with coal suppliers that used mountaintop removal methods to extract coal. Now 2.5 percent of TVA’s coal purchases come from mountaintop removal in the Appalachian Mountains.

On Thursday, TVA took at least one public step to make energy efficiency more achievable for small manufacturers.

The board agreed to modify the small manufacturing credit program, which gives qualifying manufacturers a credit for power demands of more than one megawatt. The change allows qualifying manufacturers to remain eligible for the credit if their power demand falls below the threshold amount if they have invested in energy efficiency improvements.

TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said about 600 companies participate in the program. The effort represents a reduction of about 10 percent on the manufacturing customer’s retail bill, and costs TVA about $50 million a year.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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