UTILITIES:

In 'Fukushima Building,' TVA tests a new age of nuclear construction

SPRING CITY, Tenn. -- A new $185 million building here can withstand an earthquake, floods and tornadoes.

The floor is tied to bedrock.

The door and wall can withstand "missiles," which could mean actual weapons but more likely would be objects pummeled through the air during a tornado, hurricane or other severe weather event.

This is the new "FLEX Storage Equipment Building" at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar nuclear power plant. TVA officials simply call it the "Fukushima Building."

Inside the building there are portable pumps, generators and other equipment that can keep Watts Bar 1 -- and eventually Watts Bar 2 -- running if a gigantic natural disaster or some sort of attack knocks out all the primary and redundant power to the plant. Keeping the three separate loops of water flowing through the reactor and making sure the used fuel rods remain stored and cool in their own pools are key.

"All of this can be used to prevent a Fukushima event," said Bob Williams, the Fukushima project manager for Watts Bar Unit 2.

The FLEX buildings are the nuclear industry's answer to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's safety directives that followed the 2012 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

The meaning of the term FLEX is twofold. On one hand, it refers to the flexible, portable equipment that can be brought out to help keep the reactors running.

It also points to the fact that the highly variable industry strategy allows each building and plant to have equipment to handle situations more likely to occur in that area. Florida is more hurricane-prone, for example, while tornadoes are more likely to hit in the Midwest.

All sites must have equipment to handle all of those events, however -- even the unthinkable ones.

There are regional FLEX centers in Phoenix and Memphis, Tenn. TVA's Watts Bar plant is the first to incorporate the regulations onsite, said Mike Skaggs, TVA senior vice president for Watts Bar operations and construction.

Skaggs and the workers who designed, constructed and equipped the building say they think they have met the NRC's safety requirements. TVA is preparing the Watts Bar 2 reactor for testing and inspection so it can meet a December 2015 production deadline, so they will know soon enough, Skaggs said.

"Sometimes our opinion and their opinion don't line up," he said of the NRC.

A difference of opinion between safety regulators and the industry can happen during a massive project such as building a reactor. The likelihood of those disagreements happening now is even higher, as both the Fukushima regulations and Watts Bar 2 are new.

"It may be silly to think the water may get above this level, but you are running a nuclear power reactor, so the NRC is coming from a totally different place," said Mark Barnett, a utility analyst with Morningstar Inc. "The NRC's perspective is 'prepare for everything.' That's where they are coming from. That's where the public wants them to come from."

'An unknowable, an unquantifiable liability'

The reactor will be the nation's first to start up since 1996. Georgia Power and South Carolina Electric & Gas are building the nation's first sets of reactors from scratch in nearly three decades, but it will be years before those projects are complete.

TVA is resurrecting Watts Bar 2 and is building it under a former regulatory approval and license process. The NRC changed that process in the mid-2000s in an effort to kick-start the nuclear industry, which lay dormant for nearly 30 years.

While Georgia Power and SCE&G won approvals to build new reactors, a slow economy, plunging natural gas prices and lower demand for electricity led other utilities to scrap or at least indefinitely delay their own reactor projects.

"A nuclear plant is basically an unknowable, an unquantifiable liability," Barnett said. "It's an unquantifiable risk to the companies that own them. That's why all of these companies are going to the government to build them, but as soon as the loan guarantees fell off, nobody talked about building them."

TVA is still considering building more, although it could take years for electricity demand to create a need (EnergyWire, July 18).

The utility's eyes are still set on a small reactor project at the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor site in Oak Ridge, Tenn. TVA continues to evaluate the site, which would hold up to six small modular reactors, a company official told EnergyWire in a March interview (EnergyWire, March 11).

The utility started building Watts Bar 1 and 2 in the 1970s. Slow electricity demand shelved both projects in the late 1980s, but TVA eventually finished Watts Bar 1 in 1996.

The reactor became the nation's last to start producing electricity and will remain that way until Watts Bar 2 comes online. TVA's board approved a construction restart for Watts Bar 2 in 2007, but it wasn't until 2012 that it signed off on an updated budget and schedule.

'Hundreds of risks' ahead

The reactor project is more than 90 percent finished. There are still several rounds of systems testing and approvals before TVA can load fuel into the reactor.

"There are hundreds of risks" between now and the end of next year, Skaggs said last week after a tour of the reactor and site.

There have been hundreds more before now.

"It's very difficult, and it's very complex," said Skaggs, who's on his third tour at the Watts Bar site. "The regulations are fair, but they are difficult. They change. You have to be pliable."

Skaggs starts his day at the site a little before 6:30 a.m. and leaves about 11 hours later. A typical morning starts with meetings reviewing the day's events, a visit to the operations side, and more meetings to set priorities and review performance data.

Then Skaggs hits specific spots that he says may not be a problem but could be an ongoing challenge. The Fukushima building is on that list.

"We're making sure that we're ready to operate," he said.

All eyes are on the December 2015 deadline. Meeting that goal started years ago with Skaggs putting together a team, even coaxing some former co-workers out of retirement, and "getting the right people out here."

This was because a large part of the Watts Bar 1 workforce was gone.

"Building a nuclear power plant now is more difficult than in the '90s," Skaggs said.

Even though TVA will have twin reactors on one site, regulations prevent the utility from simply copying the design from one and using it to build another. Too much time has passed.

"You have to remodel the plant, you have to perform the analysis, you have to use the new standards," Skaggs said. "If we find mistakes in Unit 1, we have to go back and correct them."

Challenges included updating the design and all of the interacting parts, finding components that were now obsolete and pulled from shelves because of frequent industry changes and upgrades, and losing time to parts that were shipped from elsewhere and didn't meet quality-assurance standards here.

Another challenge is keeping 3,100 -- once as many as 3,500 -- workers engaged every day until the project is complete. TVA is doing this with an incentive plan that Skaggs developed and asked the board to approve.

Workers get payouts if the project comes in under its projected $4.4 billion budget.

The more under budget, the higher the payouts. Safety and quality cannot be sacrificed to hit the cost and schedule goals, however.

"On the ground what matters is that plant isn't rushed because it is a nuclear asset," Barnett at Morningstar said. "You have to micromanage so much. You cannot have a tiny crack. The issue is the asset type needs to be regulated that much."

No spot left uncleaned

The area of the plant for Watts Bar 2 still looks like a construction site with gravel, rock and dust. They will paint at the end, Skaggs said.

Inside the turbine building, a yellow line separates Watts Bar 1's generator from Watts Bar 2. The area for Unit 1 is painted in turquoise, while Unit 2 has been freshly painted in blue.

"The generator is what makes the money," Skaggs said.

Watts Bar 2 will go through three major rounds of testing: open vessel, cold hydrostatic and hot functional. Workers have completed open vessel testing, where each system is run separately and then all together.

They are also cleaning the reactor and its components in a manner that would impress even Martha Stewart. Secured by a harness, workers are lowered down into the reactor vessel to hand-clean the walls.

"The standards for cleanliness for internal systems is really high," Skaggs said.

The attention to safety is apparent. There's been 28 million man-hours without time lost because of an accident. A fire truck and ambulance are also on site in case of emergency.

"That's kind of an 'above and beyond' thing," Skaggs said.

Getting through the next two rounds of testing is key, as is loading the fuel rods, which TVA hopes to do around the middle of next year.

"To get to the end of 2015, we've got lots of challenges," Skaggs said. "A lot of work has to be done in tight spaces. Can you get all of the work done to meet your schedule?"

Twitter: @BizWriterKristi | Email: kswartz@eenews.net

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