SPRING CITY, TN (WRCB-TV) – Channel 3 tagged along with inspectors as they ventured deep inside Watts Bar Dam to check the turbines that make the lights come on when you flip the switch.
Watts Bar Dam is at the Rhea-Meigs County line.
Our exclusive tour begins in the powerhouse. Turbulence in the waters outside means electricity is being generated here. We walked around a massive replacement turbine awaiting installation.
Next stop, one of five cylindrical rooms housing the giant generators. The roar is constant as the large axle connected to the turbine, below, spins turning the generator.
"We have about 70 feet of reservoir on that side that's powering this unit," explained Alex Mosley, Watts Bar Hydro Plant Manager.
A narrow, spiral staircase takes us deeper toward elevation 650.
About half way, we pause at a steel door. What looks to be just more than an inch of steel is all that stands between us and gushing lake water powering turbine number 1.
A few more steps and our team reaches the bottom of the dam, underwater on both sides. The inspection crew gets suited-up as they go over their plans and ready for action.
"At this elevation," Mosley said, "we're about a hundred feet below the reservoir level and about 35 feet below the tail race elevation. We're at the lowest part of the dam. This is gonna be, actually up under those turbine blades and this is where the guys and gonna go into that area and actually do their inspection."
The workers locked themselves onto a kind of crane mechanism and work their way out and down into the chamber of turbine number 2.
"Oh, I don't think it's so much danger," laughed TVA Film and Photography Manager Cletus Mitchell. "I know my wife doesn't like it, but uh, you know!"
Mitchell is no stranger to what some would call high-risk operations.
"I've done a lot of things," he said. "Been in nuclear plants, been on top of the cooling towers that you see, I've climbed those. Uh, refueling floors, taken the head off a reactor, I've been there and done that, so a little bit of everything. So, it's really fun!"
Every five years, they drop in to check things out. They inspect the mechanics, the condition of the concrete and clean debris, wood and aquatic life (especially zebra muscles) out of the drains.
Hard to believe things are in such good condition. It has been in use since the Watts Bar Dam was completed in 1942!
"These guys that built these dams, they knew what they were doing," said Mitchell. "And so, you know, we try to be safe in everything we do. That's the main thing: safety."