The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued a 40-year operating licence to Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for unit 2 of the Watts Bar NPP, which is 99% complete near Knoxville in Tennessee. NRC said the 1,165MWe Westinghouse pressurised water reactor is the first US reactor it has authorised to operate since 1996, when it issued the licence for Watts Bar 1. The Unit 2 licence allows operation until 22 October 2055.

TVA suspended work on Watts Bar 2 in 1985 when the unit was about 55% complete, but extended the unit’s construction permit before a decision to resume work in 2007 and the award of an engineering, procurement and construction contract to Bechtel. TVA updated its operating licence application in March 2009, and the regulator completed its environmental review in May 2013.

TVA said significant milestones towards operation of Watts Bar 2 have been completed, including hot functional testing, hydrostatic pressure testing, and containment testing, which demonstrated the integrity of the steel containment structure and associated systems and components designed to contain accidental releases of radioactive material. Preparations are now under way for initial fuel load, and TVA said that the unit is on schedule for operation in early 2016.

NRC said it had conducted more than 200,000 hours of extensive safety reviews and inspections at Watts Bar 2 over eight years and is satisfied it is safe to operate. NRC has two resident inspectors at Watts Bar for day-to-day oversight of site activities, and an additional resident inspector for continued oversight of start-up activities at unit 2.

"We already monitor unit 1’s performance through our reactor oversight process, which is used at all reactor sites throughout the country, and we’re adding unit 2 to that system," said Bill Dean, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. "Staff from our Region II office in Atlanta will ensure TVA meets its requirements as it loads fuel into Unit 2 and runs tests before the unit starts generating electricity." NRC added that Watts Bar is the first site to comply with the agency’s Fukushima-related orders on mitigation strategies and spent fuel pool instrumentation.

"We completed the construction and are in the process of getting the plant ready to get online," Brendan Bechtel, the chief operating officer of Bechtel Corp told Bloomberg. Unit 2 had to be updated to meet the stricter post Fukushima safety. "The plant is built to the post-Fukushima seismic and natural disaster requirements," Bechtel said. The issue of the Watts Bar 2 licence means that there are now 100 commercial nuclear reactors licensed to operate in the USA.