America's first 21st century nuclear generation

On October 17, I visited Watts Bar Unit 2, the nuclear unit the Tennessee Valley Authority is constructing in East Tennessee near Knoxville. I went as part of a delegation of public power and rural electric co-op leaders, including many TVA customer representatives.

This visit brought home to me how complex the construction of a nuclear unit is, and how important it is to do it right. Watts Bar II is being constructed alongside Watts Bar Unit 1, a working nuclear unit that can power 650,000 homes. There are about 2,750 people on site helping to construct Unit II, alongside 1,000 people who are operating Unit I and who will operate Unit II upon completion. After getting a safety lecture, we passed through some very heavy-duty security, and then toured the turbine building, the control room for Unit II, and the still-under-construction containment facility for the Unit II reactor. Last, we went over to the "flex" building, where additional equipment is kept to ensure an uninterrupted supply of power for water pumps to keep the reactor cooled if there is an off-the-charts flood and/or earthquake event — this building being equipped to comply with regulatory requirements added by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) after Fukushima.

What impressed me as we toured the site was the sense that every worker there was on a mission — to complete the unit on time and safely, without errors or a lost time accident. It was a bustling place, with hard hats color coded by contractor, teams at work on different tasks at different portions of the site, all the while keeping a clean and organized work environment. We also passed by the NRC's trailer, where 20-30 inspectors are on site on any day, inspecting to make sure each task and milestone is correctly completed.

Jo Ann Emerson, the CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and I then had lunch with around 20 female TVA employees from all levels of the organization — we had a boilermaker, an electrical engineer, a senior transmission executive, a senior VP of human resources and communications, a measurement specialist, and two government relations reps, among others. Many of them had been among the first women working in their job categories, and had the stories to prove it. It was great to talk to so many women at various stages of their careers in the STEM disciplines in the electric utility industry — they certainly are working to change its face, and setting the example for others to follow.

My chief takeaways: nuclear power is a complex undertaking, and an important one. If we are truly serious about reducing the carbon footprint of our industry, it needs to be part of our power supply strategy. And TVA, under CEO Bill Johnson's leadership, is working hard to diversify the power supply of the Tennessee Valley and reduce its environmental impact, while keeping costs reasonable for customers in the Valley. That is no small task, but the TVA employees I met are going "all in" to make it happen."