Joe Grimes, the Tennessee Valley Authority's chief nuclear officer, explains why the Watts Bar Unit 2 nuclear project began and details construction testing and transition status to commercial operation expected late this year. Watts Bar Unit 2 will be first new nuclear unit to operate in the U.S. in the 21st century.

My day job, running an organization called the East Tennessee Economic Council, is a labor of love. I live in a great place. I work with great people. We try to create great opportunities for this region to thrive. And it is thriving.

You cannot grow in today's economy without reliable, low-cost, clean power. Under the stewardship of the Tennessee Valley Authority, we have that.

In the world of economic development, numbers are the bottom line – how many jobs will be created? What kind of investment will a project create or sustain? TVA has made a big investment in our local economy with the completion of the first nuclear power reactor this century. But the numbers only tell part of the story at TVA's Watts Bar Unit 2 project in Tennessee.

The project near Spring City, Tenn. began in the 1970's and resumed in 2007. Over the last eight years, the construction work has created more than 3,000 jobs, many of which were filled from union halls around the southeast. Another 200 or so permanent positions are being added to the staff already onsite for operation of Watts Bar Unit 1. These are people who have stayed in local hotels, campgrounds and apartments, eaten at local restaurants and shopped at local businesses.

If we look beyond the scope of the project itself, the value of clean, affordable energy that will be provided by the new nuclear unit at Watts Bar is immense. Unit 2 will deliver 1,150 megawatts of carbon-free electricity, enough to power 650,000 average homes in the region.

The energy supplied by TVA and that will be supplied by this new nuclear unit powers the nation's largest multi-disciplinary research facility, DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Y-12 National Security Complex. It powers companies like ALCOA, retooling itself right now to provide lightweight materials for the automotive industry. It is empowering innovators like our friends at Local Motors, who made headlines globally this year with the first additive manufactured car.

NEI

The region's automotive industry is thriving in part because of the reliable power TVA provides. Thousands of jobs have moved to Tennessee and surrounding states as companies like Nissan and Volkswagen open new or expanded facilities. A major factor in those decisions was the availability of clean, affordable electricity. A study from the Brookings Institution called "Drive" points to clean energy sources as a component that allows the automotive industry to expand its technology innovations, which leads to cleaner automobile emissions.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a proponent of nuclear energy, said it best during a recent speech at a recent Nuclear Energy Institute event in Washington D.C. "If we want a large amount of clean, cheap, reliable electricity available to power our 21st-century economy, then we need to do everything we can to make sure nuclear power continues to provide it."

And while critics are quick to point to the 40-to-even-60-year life span of the Watts Bar project, the economic benefits have been around for that long as well. NEI estimates construction of a nuclear plant requires an average of 400,000 cubic yards of specialized concrete, usually manufactured by American workers. The same is true for the steel, wiring and other infrastructure. Watts Bar Unit 1 was completed in 1996, and since then, NEI again estimates that every dollar it takes to operate the plant generates another dollar in the local economy. That number will double when Unit 2 comes on line.

While the Watts Bar Unit 2 project has created thousands of jobs, the completion of the work is a critical piece of the TVA's ability to provide clean, reliable energy – an asset that brings thousands of jobs to Tennessee and surrounding states every year.

The completion of the Watts Bar Unit 2 Project is a huge investment in our economy. It's an investment that is going to pay dividends for the region for years to come.