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TVA May Start Up First Nuclear Unit in Decades In Weeks

The presidential race is drowning out what could be the biggest splash in energy news this year: the starting of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 2. If it passes some safety tests as set by nuclear regulators, it will be allowed to do so in June.

Nuclear plants are starting in China and India. And we hear they are closing down in German and Sweden. And we know that four new units are going up in Georgia and South Carolina, courtesy of Southern Co. and Scana Corp. But we have heard very little about the Watts Bar facility, which crossed a major hurdle on Monday: a fission reaction.

With the global population rising and the need for electricity expected to pick up as a result, clean and abundant power sources will be sorely needed. And that’s where nuclear energy and its operators can step up, just as the TVA and others around the world are now doing. As for the federally supplier of wholesale energy — TVA — it is gradually cranking up its power until it would run at full capacity.

“While this achievement is important, safety remains our top priority and we will now move forward with fully integrating the seventh unit into the fleet with that focus in mind,” said Joe Grimes, TVA’s chief nuclear officer, in a statement, in reference to the initial safety tests.

Still, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must ultimately give the plants its permission to operate, and it will be holding public meetings. What it wants to do is to see how it the plants performs at every intersection on its way to producing 1,150 megawatts of electricity.

TVA’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant Unit 2 was originally licensed in 1972. But it shut down in the 1980s because of security and economic concerns. Now, though, the Clean Power Plan has thrust this plant forward — the proposal to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

“This will really help Tennessee manage its emissions under the rules of the Clean Power Plan,” regardless of how the various legal challenges should turn out, says former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, in an earlier phone interview.

With more people moving into the region and consuming more energy, TVA’s supplies are stretched. “Over the long run, nuclear is cheaper than coal,” adds Gordon Arent, licensing manager for nuclear generation at TVA, in a previous talk with this writer while touring TVA’s nuclear facility. “Millions of dollars will be invested that will create high employment and clean power.”

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