SPRING CITY, Tennessee — Tom Wallace started working at the Watts Bar nuclear plant as a young man in 1979, hoping he could eventually become a reactor operator.
It remains a work-in-progress for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Wallace, 55, is still finishing that plant 36 years later, one of the longest building projects in U.S. history. In a bizarre turn, what could soon become the newest U.S. nuclear plant is a piece of 1970s-era technology.
In the time it took to build it, Wallace raised two daughters and now has grandchildren. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has designed a generation of entirely new plants now being built in Georgia and South Carolina.
"I would never leave this plant until it's running," Wallace said, standing outside the plant's turbine building in Spring City, about 60 southwest of Knoxville. "This is an important part of my career and life."
If nothing else, the second reactor at the Tennessee River site is a cautionary tale for the power industry. When it's finished, it will provide enough electricity to power about 650,000 homes in the Tennessee Valley. The cost of running a nuclear plant is relatively steady, and it does not produce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants.
But they are enormously expensive and complicated to build. The project ran decades late. In the early years, workers struggled to meet safety rules and ran up billion-dollar cost overruns.