The first new nuclear reactor in the United States in 20 years went live on Wednesday in Tennessee, in what at least one nuclear expert is calling the "last gasp of a dying industry."
The Watts Bar 2 reactor, which began construction decades ago but faltered, only picking up again in the last four years, is now producing electricity for 650,000 homes and businesses, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.
At $4.7 billion, the project is "arguably one of the most expensive, most over-budget, oldest reactors to be started in human history," Friends of the Earth senior strategic adviser Damon Moglen told Common Dreams on Thursday. "It's a testament to the failure of the nuclear industry, rather than the resurgence."
"It's the last gasp of the nuclear industry trying to prove they are still alive in the sense of opening new reactors," Moglen said. "There is just absolutely no justification for the stunning sums of money and time and energy poured into this reactor" instead of renewable, cost-competitive energy.
The unit "illustrates the problem faced by nuclear power in the United States and suggests why nuclear power won't play much of a role in the future," Dave Lochaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Common Dreams.
He noted that there are four other reactors under construction in South Carolina and Georgia, which are "behind schedule and over-budget. The current costs, likely to increase even further, are over $6 billion each."
"One can purchase lots of renewable energy sources for $6 billion," Lochaum said.
Watts Bar 2 is now the seventh reactor under the operation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federal utility. However, Free Press reporter Dave Flessner wrote, "TVA, which once planned to erect 17 nuclear reactors, has given up on 10 of those and has no plans on the drawing board for any additional nuclear plants for the first time in a half century."
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In fact, power demands in the area have come to a standstill as solar and wind power becomes increasingly mainstream, Flessner reported.
As Moglen said, it's a sign that there are "clearly 21st century ways in which we can produce clean safe, greenhouse gas-free energy that is cost competitive, and doesn't have the added risk of nuclear proliferation...and the long-term dangers of nuclear waste. I think the startup of Watts Bar is symbolic of the complete and abject failure of the nuclear industry."
"We have an ethical and cultural and social imperative to be designing clean energy and we know how to do that," Moglen added, pointing to the historic agreement reached in June between Pacific Gas and Energy (PG&E) and a slew of environmental and labor groups to shut down the Diablo Canyon reactor in California and replace it with renewable energy utilities and storage units.
Construction on Watts Bar began in 1973 and was paused in 1985, then restarted again in 2007. The project's spotty record—which includes the longest construction history of any reactor in the world—belies the nuclear industry's slow collapse, experts say.
In fact, as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists wrote in October 2015, "Rather than exemplifying a fine technological achievement, the history of Watts Bar Units 1 and 2 is a cautionary tale of the worst pitfalls of nuclear power and the federal regulatory system."
With Tennessee's reactor now built and the money sunk, the next step will be demanding a "full-scale debate" about energy policy in the next administration, Moglen said, citing a recent article by environmental activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben that demanded a World War II-style mobilization against climate change.
"That's one of the things this next administration is gonna be responsible for," Moglen said. "I think the public is actually concerned in a world marked by local and regional and international terrorism that the issue of nuclear proliferation is potentially one of our worst nightmares... [Watts Bar's launch is a] symbolic gesture. It's very sad that this is the last gasp of the industry because it looks like such an extraordinarily dumb one."