Last Friday, employees of Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Watts Bar Nuclear Plant started loading the first of 193 new fuel assemblies into its Unit 2 reactor. This action marked the first, initial core load of a commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S. in nearly two decades. When I heard this exciting news, I couldn’t help but recall some happy memories from earlier in my career when I worked on Watts Bar Unit 1.
The fuel load and startup of Watts Bar Unit 2 is a very important milestone for TVA and the nuclear industry. I was working at TVA in the late 1980’s when the startup of Watts Bar Unit 1 was one of our focus areas. In looking back, it amazes me how much work was entailed in getting the plant ready for operation. I was fortunate enough to return in the early ‘90s as a member of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) team that came on site to evaluate the plant’s readiness for startup (Watts Bar Unit 1 began commercial operations in June 1996) and was really impressed with how much had been accomplished. To now see that TVA has been able to successfully construct Watts Bar Unit 2 and is loading fuel is incredibly satisfying.
Initial fuel load is an exciting time at the site. It is a seminal moment where all the hard work pays off. You know that once the fuel is loaded, you’ve taken a huge step toward the goal of safely and reliably producing power. You can be certain that everyone at TVA realizes there’s still plenty of work to do. But this step energizes and motivates everyone to keep moving forward. It’s also the step that transitions the plant from traditional power plant construction and operational protocol to a nuclear power plant. The testing that will occur over the next few months will help ensure that the plant’s safety systems will perform reliably.
As the plant progresses over the next few months through initial criticality, the excitement at the plant will build and ultimately conclude with full power operation. I look forward to the day that the site and industry will justifiably celebrate this significant accomplishment.