New Reactor in Tennessee Safety Concerns Cloud US Nuclear Renaissance

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.

A Quagmire of Historic Proportions

Guity used official channels again and again to call attention to the problems, but when all of his efforts proved to be in vain, he went public with his findings. In doing so, he triggered one of the biggest scandals in American industrial history, one that essentially continues to this day.

At the time, in 1985, the TVA felt compelled to shut down all of its nuclear power plants for years. Watts Bar 1, which its builders were convinced was ready to go online in 1985, remained shut down and could only be restarted 12 years later, 23 years after its initial construction permit had been issued. A fact-finding commission in the US Congress eventually investigated the entire process.

When the hearings began in February 1986, and Guity and a handful of like-minded colleagues went to Washington to testify in Room 2322 at the Rayburn House Office Building, the TVA had shut down -- or rather, had been forced to shut down -- nuclear power plants worth $15 billion (€10.7 billion). And this was at least in part Guity's fault or, depending on one's perspective, his achievement.

The chairman of the congressional committee spoke of crass mismanagement and a "quagmire" of monumental proportions. The "historic disaster" consisted in the fact that the TVA, for cost reasons, had allegedly planned its nuclear plants incorrectly and built them in a defective manner. But now, as it was argued at the time, it would be very difficult to ever determine whether or not these plants are safe. This question still cannot be answered today, 25 years later.

An American Idyll

It's important to remember where this story unfolded. Seen from the perspective of its narrow country roads, Tennessee is a picture book of rural America.

Small flatbed trucks and rumbling container trucks wind their way through a vast but pleasant forested landscape. Newly built wooden houses are surrounded by perfect lawns and manicured gardens where the American flag is proudly displayed. Outsiders can imagine all kinds of things when they visit the area, but they are unlikely to hit upon the idea that ramshackle nuclear power plants are hidden behind the forest.

Local residents are more or less in the same boat. Their country is so large and vast that even nuclear power plants look like toys in its midst. It seems impossible to imagine that they could ever pose an existential threat.

This worldview is on full display at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. The museum, not far from Watts Bar, is a weather-beaten concrete structure that tells the story of the technical superiority of days gone by.

Nuclear Faith

Oak Ridge was the home of the Manhattan Project, perhaps the boldest research project of all time, which brought together leading physicists and tens of thousands of technicians to secretly build the bomb during World War II. The large complexes surrounding the museum today are referred to as "Y-12," "K-25" and "X-10." Uranium was enriched at these facilities, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was conceived there, and scientists later also developed hydrogen bombs at Oak Ridge.

Missiles and bombs are on display in the museum chambers, where child-oriented models explain the wonderful benefits of nuclear energy. One of the museum's messages is: We built the bomb, so why should we fear civilian nuclear power? The second message is: America is at the forefront of technology and represents progress.

The Watts Bar nuclear power plant is an hour's drive from Oak Ridge, surrounded by a serene river landscape, in a place where catfish are reportedly bigger than normal. James Fry, 55, who spent 13 years driving trucks to New York and Montreal, now runs a campsite in the area.

He has been coming to Watts Bar to go fishing for the last seven years. During that time, he says, there were two occasions when he saw a scrap of paper posted on the bulletin board in the parking lot across from the power plant. It was a notice warning people not to eat fish from the river, because of the threat of radiation.

Fry doesn't give any thought to the notion that the plant itself could pose a hazard to anyone. "The plant's a good neighbor," he says. "We have no problems."

'Safe, Clean, Reliable and Cheap'

Once, at the end of April, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held an information event on the progress of construction at Watts Bar in a hotel in Athens, not far from the reactor. A sign in the lobby, written with magic marker, identified the public event. It looked like a sign announcing a flea market.

The most conspicuous thing about the attendees was that there were no opponents of nuclear power to be seen. No one stood outside the door with flyers or protest banners, there were no megaphones, and a police presence was not needed. The three or four dozen men in dark suits stuck together, men from both the NRC and the TVA. It felt like the meeting of a club whose members had known each other for years.

"Nuclear energy is a safe, clean, reliable and cheap form of energy production," Ashok Bhatnagar, 55, TVA's senior vice president for nuclear operations, says a few days later. He was 11 when his parents left their native India. Bhatnagar went to college in the United States and worked at Duke Energy in North Carolina for many years. He was intrigued by the TVA, he says, because, as a government-owned company, it is not required to turn a profit but only to do a job that makes sense for the public good.

During our conversation in the plant's visitor center, Bhatnagar, who is wearing a dark blue polo shirt with the TVA logo on it, asks politely about the status of the German nuclear debate.  He also makes a few noteworthy remarks about Fukushima.

"The tsunami," says Bhatnagar, "that is, the wave itself, killed 15,000 people. But the radiation from Fukushima hasn't killed anyone yet, as far as we know. The truth is that the systems essentially did exactly what they were supposed to do. I think we have to ask ourselves how much risk we are willing to take. If we wanted zero risk, we would have to resettle half of Asia's coastal cities, because of tsunamis."

Defending Atomic Power at Ladies' Night

Bhatnagar makes no mention of cables, weld seams or concrete. A TVA spokesman will later send SPIEGEL some information about the issue in response to a query. And the spokesman confirms, in a way, Guity's concerns -- namely that there is still some very old material installed and in use in both units at Watts Bar.

The cables installed before 1986, the spokesman writes, were replaced "or tested to ensure they meet standards and requirements." As far as the concrete is concerned, the spokesman added, the Watts Bar 2 structures "were mostly complete" when the current work began in 2007. But this means that Watts Bar 2 is essentially still the same reactor than Guity believes should be torn down, if safety issues are to be taken seriously.

Tennessee is in a part of the country where tornadoes are common and major rivers have a tendency to overflow. There is no hint of such dangers on Fridays, which are "Ladies' Nights," at The Joker, a bar five minutes from the Watts Bar plant. The bar occupies a long building next to a parking lot in the woods. Inside, men sit with their elbows on the bar, drinking pitchers of beer. Many are current or former TVA employees, and some are wearing the polo shirt with the TVA logo.

One of them, a tall, bearded man, has a few things to say about nuclear power. It's ultimately a choice between electricity and candlelight, he says. Anyone who is seriously opposed to nuclear energy should get used to the idea of living in caves again, he says, adding that the Germans will figure this out sooner or later.

At 9 p.m., Ladies' Night begins and a group of overweight women fire up the karaoke machine and start singing syrupy ballads.

'Messed Up'

Anyone who thinks differently in Tennessee, perhaps someone who has environmental leanings, has to come up with better arguments than the anti-nuclear movement's famous slogan: "Nuclear power? No thanks!"  Americans, on the whole, are not afraid of nuclear technology, and they still firmly believe that nuclear energy is a reasonable part of a modern society that tolerates a certain amount of risk.

"Everything's completely messed up," says Stephen Smith, a boyish, energetic and good-looking 49-year-old. "But that's the way things go in America. We fill up the Gulf of Mexico with oil, and afterwards we don't even feel that there's reason for a debate." Smith has three children, two grandchildren, a dog and a house on the outskirts of Knoxville that produces as much energy a year as it consumes.

The light in Smith's kitchen comes from mirrored shafts in the ceiling, and the water is heated with the electricity generated by 36 Sharp solar panels on the roof.

Only two years ago, a senator from Tennessee unveiled a plan to build 100 new nuclear power plants. A few weeks after the Fukushima disaster, President Barack Obama announced that the government would allow the construction of new reactors. "It sounds like a joke, right?" says Smith. "But it's not. It's our daily lunacy in this country."

The Most Expensive Industrial Ruin in US History

In the 1980s, after Chernobyl, Smith and a few other anti-nuclear activists periodically stirred things up at the museum in Oak Ridge, by walking around with Geiger counters and bringing along Hiroshima survivors, only to be berated as traitors by their fellow Americans.

Smith is no traitor -- quite the contrary. He ran a veterinary practice in Knoxville for 10 years, but his environmental activism continued to expand until he decided to make it a full-time activity in 1999. Today he is the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a sort of eco think tank with 35 employees and an annual budget of $4 million. "Now the world is my patient," he says, "and it isn't doing very well."

Smith is no longer the sort of activist who fights for a better planet with whistles and banners. He has turned himself into a serious lobbyist, one who is also invited to TVA board meetings. He knows Ashok Bhatnagar, is familiar with his arguments and doesn't even hold them against him. "When I hear Bhatnagar talking about Watts Bar today, I always think: That's exactly what the nuclear engineers in Japan were saying -- two weeks before the tsunami."

Watts Bar, says Smith, is the most expensive industrial ruin in US history. To make matters worse, it's also a scandal with global political implications. That's because in addition to electricity, Watts Bar also produces tritium, which is used to make nuclear warheads. "It's consummate hypocrisy," says Smith. "What we're doing here is exactly what we want to prohibit all other countries from doing. We're mixing civilian and military use. We, not the others, are violating international treaties."

'It Never Stops'

Many aspects of the Tennessee story are hard to believe. Back in the 1980s, when Guity was debating whether to go public with his frightening results, an external agency interviewed 5,200 TVA employees who had worked or were still working on the Watts Bar construction project. The employees voiced 5,081 concerns, including 1,868 with safety implications, of which 79 percent later proved to be justified. For example, about 18 tons of unsuitable material was used in the plant to fill weld seams. In Germany, that infraction alone would probably have led to the demolition of the entire plant.

In America, on the other hand, construction will come to an end at Watts Bar in the coming weeks. Unit 1 was the last US nuclear reactor licensed in the 20th century, and Unit 2 will be the first in the 21st century. Mansour Guity follows every piece of news on progress at the site. He has trouble letting go, particularly as there is always something new happening at Watts Bar.

In March, an employee of a subcontractor was indicted on charges of having fabricated test results on wiring issues. In January, the leading project manager, an Iranian, disappeared overnight, allegedly because of "personal problems."

A few days earlier, the NRC had sent a sharply worded letter to the TVA, citing problems with fire prevention systems and the overall poor quality of the TVA reports. "It just keeps on going," says Guity. "It never stops. Never."

Guity, who is in poor health, says that when Watts Bar 2 is finished, he will feel as if they had built a memorial to the defeat of his life.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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