New Reactor in Tennessee: Safety Concerns Cloud US Nuclear Renaissance

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Watts Bar 2, the US's newest nuclear power plant, is being built in Tennessee and is expected to go online next year. It has a history of safety concerns that goes back decades. Nevertheless, many local people support nuclear power and are welcoming the reactor with open arms.

Mansour Guity was the chief witness against the American nuclear industry. He crippled entire power plants almost single-handedly. But now the 30-year war he has been waging is coming to an end.

They are now putting the finishing touches on the second reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Generating Station in the Tennessee River valley, less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Guity's house. After construction was stopped more than two decades ago and resumed in 2007, the reactor is now expected to go online next year. Mansour Guity isn't doing too well at the moment.

A few days ago, a massive tornado swept through Tennessee and cut a swath of destruction through Alabama. Hundreds of tornados snapped utility poles like matchsticks and forced authorities to temporarily shut down the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant, a twin of the Fukushima plant. It went into emergency operation during the stormy night and shut itself down automatically.

Guity is familiar with such matters, and he knows what goes on inside nuclear plants when this happens. A nuclear engineer who was born in Iran in 1942, Guity is a disappointed American today. "Time bombs," he says, sounding very bitter. "We are sitting on a bunch of ticking time bombs."

Loss of Faith

The dining table in his large, cream-colored house not far from Knoxville, on the edge of the Smoky Mountains, is covered with paper in large and small packages, newspaper articles, old meeting minutes, and technical reports on cables, weld seams and concrete. It takes a lot of puzzle pieces to assemble Guity's life into a coherent picture, and to understand how a man, with a mixture of professional honor and integrity, took on the biggest energy company in the United States and fell by the wayside in the process.

Guity says that he still has to take 26 pills a day to keep his depression and other conditions under control. It would certainly be too simplistic to blame the nuclear industry for his health problems. Guity is someone for whom the American dream didn't work out. He says that he used to have a lot of faith in this country, but that now he no longer knows what to believe in.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, he gradually discovered that so many shortcuts were taken, and some of the work was so shoddy, during the construction of the nuclear plants along the Tennessee River that it made a mockery of any notion of nuclear safety.

Guity was a nuclear engineer at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a large, long-established government-owned company that operates the Browns Ferry, Sequoyah, Bellefonte and Watts Bar nuclear power plants. When the plants were built, there was talk of thousands of clear violations of plans and building regulations, with the most serious infractions occurring at Watts Bar.

Not Up to Standard

The plant's two units were built at the same time in the 1970s and 80s. Only Unit 1 was placed into operation, after a dramatic delay, while Unit 2 remained unfinished until construction was resumed a few years ago. If Guity had his way, the entire plant, including both units and everything else associated with it, would disappear from the map as soon as possible.

Inside the plant, rows of thick power cables were bent at such sharp angles that they could be expected to fail at any time. Weld seams were not up to standards along lengthy segments. Concrete walls were too thin. Guity saw all of this with his own eyes, in his capacity as quality manager for the reactor project. The reason Guity still has trouble sleeping at night is his belief that all of these old mistakes and violations can never be completely corrected.

One of the reasons Guity is so upset is that there is no public debate in the United States over Watts Bar, or nuclear energy in general. It is a non-issue throughout the country, even though, according to Guity, there are plenty of reasons that it should be discussed. The United States has 104 nuclear reactors in operation, more than any other country in the world. Many plants are alarmingly dated -- some are 40 years old or even older. Some 65,000 tons of nuclear waste have accumulated over the decades. As unbelievable as it sounds, the country doesn't even have a long-term plan for the storage and disposal of the nuclear waste being generated every day.

If the second unit at Watts Bar, America's last reactor still under construction, really does go online next year, almost 40 years after building work began, parts of the unit will still date from the time when so many criteria were being violated. In fact, no one, not even the TVA, knows exactly the nature and scope of these violations.

Stalled Career

The TVA's headquarters is at the highest point in Knoxville, housed in two pale, 12-story buildings that look like upended shoe boxes. The surrounding city has a cozy, provincial feel.

When Mansour Guity arrived in Knoxville as a student, the city was much poorer than it is today. His parents had left Iran in the early 1960s, during the regime of the shah, bringing their four sons and one daughter with them.

Guity studied electrical engineering in Knoxville, and when he graduated companies were eager to recruit him and other newly minted engineers. Guity took a job with the TVA, in its nuclear power division. It was 1969, and nuclear energy was still in its infancy. Only a few leftist cranks and fearful dreamers were afraid of it. But Guity recognized its potential.

A decade later, his faith in the technology and in the power of engineers was destroyed. Starting in about 1979, when work was in full swing at Watts Bar, he could no longer ignore the construction defects and began keeping a record of what he saw. His career began to stall about that time.

Guity, whose coworkers had referred to him as "the Ace" until then, was passed over for promotion. He received no raises, and his reports went unanswered, disappearing into the bowels of the company. He was asked to rewrite a particularly dramatic report on defective wiring at Watts Bar. First he was told to turn the 200-page report into a 20-page report, and then he was told that the 20 pages were still too many. It was the early 1980s, and it was an agonizing process for Guity, who kept coming back to the problems with defective wiring.

But the cables, says Guity, are "the nervous system of a nuclear power plant." There are easily 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles, or about 10 million feet) of cable running though a large plant like Watts Bar. Ultimately, the proper functioning of those cables will determine whether the situation at a nuclear power plant spins out of control in the event of a problem. Guity's reports showed that hundreds of cables had been installed incorrectly at Watts Bar. They demonstrate that the TVA cared very little about regulations.

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