SPRING CITY, TENN. — Sunset paints the concrete cooling towers ocher and orange as the first wisps of vapor rise from what may be the last nuclear-power plant ever built in America.
Here beside the Tennessee River, in the land of biscuits-and-gravy breakfasts, Watts Bar Unit 1 is now generating electricity.
It's a power flow that's been a long time coming. The plant's owner, the Tennessee Valley Authority, spent nearly $7 billion and labored 23 years before starting to bring Watts Bar up to full power.
It's a power flow whose source has been minutely scrutinized. America's atomic police force, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has subjected the plant to more hours of government inspections than any other nuclear-power station in the world has had.
But is it a power flow that should be operating at all? Or after enormous expenditure and effort has the TVA built, and the NRC licensed, a nuclear lemon?
The NRC itself insists Watts Bar is safe. Officials say 25,000 hours of inspections ensure that the plant, after all these years, deserves its start-up license.
But critics claim that the Watts Bar experience shows the failings of that inspection process itself. Much of the NRC's work, they point out, involved following up on complaints from plant employees about safety violations - violations that inspectors had missed.
Indeed, some systems OK'd by regulators prior to licensing have continued to cause problems during the start-up process. Radiation monitors, for example, haven't always worked. Control rods - critical to the safe operation of the nuclear reactor - have been problem-prone.
Nor has the plant hummed along in trouble-free fashion in its first months. Since receiving its full-power license, Watts Bar has unexpectedly shut down twice. These glitches were severe enough that plant operators had to notify state officials and the NRC's regional office in Atlanta as a precaution.
How safe is Watts Bar? It's an open question. A nuclear-power station is enormously complex. No such plant is likely to pass its first year trouble-free.
But the history of the Tennessee plant shows that if nothing else, there were sharp disagreements among government inspectors themselves over important aspects of the plant's construction. At times, some NRC managers may even have put limits on how closely some of their own watchdogs could dig into Watts Bar's lingering problems.
In the end, Watts Bar represents perhaps the nation's purest example of the difficulties of bringing a nuclear plant to life - and the tensions that can arise between plant operators, whistleblowers, and the NRC.
THE saga of Watts Bar dates back to 1969, when Neil Armstrong was setting foot on the moon and a music festival held in a farmer's field became known as Woodstock.
The TVA, the largest employer in the poor, rural river valley, originally proposed what was to be a two-reactor nuclear plant. At the time, planners estimated that the entire project could be built for $370 million.
In 1973, the rumble of bulldozers at the site - just downstream from a coal-fired plant and a hydroelectric station - heralded the start of construction. Six years later, a tragic mix of mechanical failures and operator miscues led to the partial meltdown of a reactor core at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa.
The 1979 accident at TMI's Unit 2 prompted the NRC to impose a set of requirements that had to be incorporated into all existing plants as well as those under construction, such as Watts Bar. TVA officials swallowed hard, and spent another six years bringing the plant up to specifications.
Finally, in 1985, TVA felt it was ready to seek an operating license for the plant.
That's when the regulatory roof fell in, shaken by a groundswell of whistleblower allegations over everything from quality control to fire protection.
"It wasn't the NRC that kept Watts Bar off line; it was the employees," says Ann Harris, who heads the Tennessee office of We The People Inc., a whistleblower-protection organization for nuclear workers.
The whistleblowers have numbered in the hundreds, says Mrs. Harris, including welders, electricians, and members of the plant's management. Harris worked at Watts Bar until two months ago, when TVA transferred her to its nuclear headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn. She has won four Department of Labor actions against TVA for harassment and intimidation that began after she became a conduit to the NRC for safety concerns discovered by workers at Watts Bar and other nuclear plants run by TVA.
The period was an intense one for the utility. Engineers and construction workers spent millions of hours reverifying the plant's design, reworking thousands of pipe and conduit supports, replacing 1.3 million feet of cables, and reviewing the work down to the torque on individual bolts, according to Ike Zeringue, TVA's senior vice president for nuclear operations. Aside from NRC oversight, Mr. Zeringue adds, "another 400,000 independent inspections were carried out by contract groups under TVA direction."
Last November, the NRC granted TVA a low-power license for Watts Bar. This license allowed the utility to begin operational tests, running its reactor at up to 5 percent of its 1,218 megawatt capacity. After more than two decades of effort, the utility loaded the first rods of uranium fuel into the reactor's core.
"It was a real heartfelt experience," Mr. Zeringue recalls. "I was watching people as the first fuel assembly was put in the core, and there were tears in their eyes. I've been through a dozen start-ups. But the emotions? I've never seen anything like it."
But nothing has come easily at Watts Barr. In January, operators slowly pulled control rods from the reactor's core, initiating a nuclear chain reaction for the first time. At least, they tried to. They quickly halted their efforts when they discovered that several control rods had been miswired.
In addition, some of the instruments that give the rods' positions inside the core gave false readings. NRC inspections conducted from early November to early December pointed to similar control-rod problems. Balky control rods continued to show up on the plant's daily team meeting agendas at least a month after the NRC granted TVA a full-power license in February.
It was during that same start-up period that another serious safety concern surfaced. Last September, the NRC had signed off on the adequacy of the radiation monitors, signaling that the plant met one of many requirements for receiving an operating license. The devices are designed to set off alarms or activate safety systems when radiation leaks exceed permissible levels. According to NRC commissioner Kenneth Rogers, their upkeep is a "sensitive indicator" of how carefully a utility operates a plant.
Yet in January the reactor was fired up with 25 percent of the most safety-significant radiation monitors out of service, according to William Jocher, former manager of nuclear chemistry at TVA who, according to the NRC's office of investigations, was forced to resign in 1993 after reporting safety violations and a TVA coverup. Even by March, according to plant documents made available to the Monitor, radiation monitors continued to appear as items to be repaired on plan-of-the-day sheets.
"When a plant is taken critical for the first time, you want to be absolutely sure all those monitors are functioning, because you don't have any track record," Mr. Jocher says. "You just don't know what's going to happen." Several years ago, Jocher identified widespread problems with radiation monitors at TVA's Sequoyah plant near Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.
George Kuzo, the senior radiation specialist in the NRC's Region 2 office in Atlanta, says that during a recent call to the plant, all the monitors were working. And according to NRC inspection reports, the control-rod problems had been dealt with.
UTILITY officials, too, say everything was in order. "There were no last-minute glitches," says TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci. "This was just media hype. This is expected when you start a new power plant."
Even so, says Jocher, over the course of more than 30 years in the nuclear industry and taking part in the start-ups of nine reactors around the country, "I have never, ever seen anything remotely close to the [shoddy] conditions I've seen at Watts Bar."
A senior TVA employee who says the facility is generally safe acknowledges that when the reactor is fired up for the first time, it "is a little late in the game" to be experiencing problems with control rods and radiation monitors.
Despite such glitches, Stewart Ebneter, administrator of the NRC's Region 2 office in Atlanta, which has jurisdiction over Watts Bar, maintains that the agency's approach to the facility represents "the most rigorous inspection program at any plant."
No one questions that Watts Bar is the most inspected plant in the world. But Jocher questions its safety, given the problems still showing up. "Nuclear technology is very unforgiving," he says. "You cannot make mistakes with it. One of the ways you safeguard and prevent mistakes from happening is the pursuit of detail - excruciating levels of detail. This is painfully absent from the Watts Bar process."
In the course of those inspections, two recurring themes arose: the inability of employees to raise safety concerns without risking their jobs and how hard the NRC was leaning on inspectors to cut corners.
One senior NRC inspector recalls being asked by his regional supervisor to look at the plant's service-water system late last year. The system represents a plant's ultimate heat sink - the last stop along the route to removing excess heat from the reactor and steam-driven turbines that power the electric generators.
"They told me I would have a week" to look at a system that typically takes four to five inspectors up to six weeks to inspect and write up their findings, the inspector says. "I argued for two weeks and got them. I didn't find problems with what I saw, but it was a cover-our-tail inspection."
Jocher and sources inside the plant cite another rush job. They say that Mr. Kuzo - who conducted a final inspection on radiation monitors in October and November once whistleblowers identified problems with them - acknowledged to plant workers that he was coming under pressure to wrap up his work and, as one employee describes it, "stop being so nitpicky."
When asked about that incident in the presence of an NRC public affairs officer, Kuzo replied, "I cannot think of any time that happened."
Concern over employee access to NRC inspectors stems from the poor track record many utilities, including TVA, have in dealing with employee safety concerns. Often the outcome is harassment of workers raising the concern. While the NRC does not have explicit authority to regulate the details of employee-concern programs, it insists that plants have them. It also inspects them based on the assumption that they reflect management's attitudes toward safety and its fitness to operate a complicated technology that poses a risk to public health.
Yet in the Watts Bar case, critics charge, the NRC has signed off on an employee-concerns program that looks good on paper, but won't be used by anyone with serious safety issues. People don't use it, they say, because TVA bosses have a long history of harassing and intimidating nuclear employees - one that has been abetted by the NRC itself.
In 1994, the NRC inspector general (IG) issued a report that described how agency officials drew up an agreement with TVA designed to protect the confidentiality of allegers. The volume of allegations was too great for the NRC to handle by itself. Under the agreement, the NRC said it would not give TVA the names of allegers without their permission - and then violated that provision on a regular basis, according to the IG report.
The study also documented how officials in the regional NRC office promised TVA employees more confidentiality than they were given. The practice, according to the inspector general's report, was in clear violation of the NRC's own procedures. Nor did the NRC check on the outcome of allegations once they were turned over to TVA.
Watts Bar employees have been so skittish that since last summer Harris and others say they established an underground railroad between the plant and top NRC officials in Washington. When they relayed safety allegations, the NRC officials had them folded into regular inspections rather than alert the plant's managers that safety concerns had been raised. TVA's poor track record with employee concerns prompted Mr. Ebneter's regional NRC office in Atlanta to assign a full-time inspector to look at TVA's employee-concerns program.
"You won't find that at any other site," Ebneter says.
Still, the NRC is getting pressure. The agency's handling of Watts Bar's licensing has led to a formal challenge to the plant's license by Jane Fleming, a Duxbury, Mass., nuclear-safety activist who has tracked issues at Watts Bar and other nuclear plants and who works with whistleblowers.
Filed in late January, the petition charges that in granting the low-power license the NRC failed to adhere to its own rules and granted the license knowing that TVA fell short of some of its regulatory commitments.
After some back and forth as to what the petition involved, she says, the NRC rejected her request for an independent review and turned the issue over to one of the men who led the NRC's licensing team for Watts Bar, Fred Hebdon.
Today Watts Bar is preparing to send out enough electricity to supply several hundred thousand people in the region as it continues final testing before full power-up. But the challenges to this nuclear plant continue as well - 27 years after TVA first proposed it.
* Next: Plant Tour With an NRC 'Beat Cop'