Ex-officials of utility raise concerns
By ANNE PAINE
TVA is gearing up to provide more electricity by splitting more atoms, promising a reasonably priced, reliable energy source that doesn’t pollute the air with carbon.
But two former TVA officials involved with the utility’s nuclear program in the 1970s and 1980s either question the new direction of the agency or caution that the public should ask more questions.
TVA, which provides the power flowing into the homes of many Tennesseans, scuttled most of its plans to build 17 new nuclear power plants years ago after the effort put it deep in debt and forced dramatic increases in electric rates.
But it’s been slowly bringing more nuclear power back into its mix. It reopened a reactor at its Browns Ferry plant in Alabama this spring after $1.8 billion of work. And earlier this month, the TVA board voted to spend $2.49 billion to finish a second reactor at Watts Bar in East Tennessee.
“I would think TVA would be the last one to get back into the nuclear mess,” said S. David Freeman, who voted to scrub eight proposed reactors when he was on TVA’s board in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“On my watch, we probably had to double rates. It was the rates that gave me the backing to shut the projects down.”
TVA officials say they’re going nuclear now for good reason: Demand for electricity is climbing, natural gas prices are up, and pollution-emitting coal-fired plants â€” the traditional workhorse of electricity production in the U.S. â€” have fallen into disfavor as attention turns to global warming and climate change.
Nuclear generation “has been a very safe, clean and very reliable source of power for really many decades,” said Ashok Bhatnagar, who heads TVA’s nuclear program.
Exactly what the immediate cost of TVA’s nuclear revival will mean for ratepayers has not been made clear. TVA chief Tom Kilgore was not available for an interview last week, spokesman Gil Francis said, but he has said the agency may look at a “single-digit” rate increase in the future for Watts Bar and other expenses.
TVA’s rate increases are passed along to consumers through providers such as Nashville Electric Service.
Climate is changing
How did TVA go from walking away from half-finished plants to embracing the need to increase nuclear power sources?
The answer has to do partly with improvements in technology, and partly with increased political support as coal has become less desirable for environmental reasons.
The agency’s six existing reactors supply nearly a third of all of TVA’s power today. The planned second reactor at Watts Bar, which would be TVA’s seventh atomic unit, could provide power for about 600,000 homes and has a five-year timetable for completion.
In the early 1970s, TVA had 17 reactors on the drawing board at an estimated cost of $7 billion. Twenty years later, TVA had spent $16 billion but had scrapped some projects before even starting construction â€” while some reactors were left partially finished, including one in Hartsville, Tenn., an hour from Nashville.
But some say nuclear plants today are proving cheaper and more efficient than in the troubled times of the mid- to late 1970s.
“The industry, TVA included, has made a big improvement in their ability to operate plants,” said Allan Pulsipher, TVA’s chief economist from 1980 to 1988. He is now the executive director of the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University.
“They got them running at 90 percent of capacity. That made the existing plants a much better investment and their costs competitive with coal, particularly if you look at what might be coming down the road.”
The cost of turning coal into electricity is expected to jump with tighter regulations under discussion to limit pollution.
Political support grows
While global climate change is hurting the prospects for coal-generated power, a different kind of climate â€” the political climate â€” has improved for nuclear power.
President Bush is a strong supporter of nuclear energy. With the support of Congress, he expanded TVA’s board from three to nine members â€” and seven of the current board members are Bush appointees.
Serving five-year terms, members appointed by Bush probably will be on the board of the quasi-federal agency even after he leaves the White House in early 2009. The most recent appointments, the renominations of members from Knoxville and Memphis, will serve until 2012.
The nuclear industry, whose business of building new reactors nationwide slammed to a halt in decades past, is watching TVA’s plans closely.
“We view it as the beginning of the renaissance of building new nuclear plants in this country,” said Angie Howard, a vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy organization for the industry.
About a 45 percent increase in demand for electricity is forecast over the next 20 years, and the group says nuclear is the most cost-efficient approach, though a variety of sources will be needed.
The proposed restarting of Watts Bar also would bring with it 2,300 construction and other jobs, TVA says.
Business is unfinished
But many in Middle Tennessee remember the case of Hartsville, where in 1977, TVA began work to build what would be billed as the world’s largest nuclear plant.
Five years later, the agency pulled the plug on it before it was half complete. It had spent $4 billion on it and another plant in Mississippi that also remained unfinished.
Today, the empty concrete cooling tower hovers over the landscape just outside of Hartsville.
Pulsipher offered this caveat: “If I were a ratepayer, I would be asking about some review of the plans and performance before going down the nuclear road again.
“You just have to look at history to realize a lot of money has been stuffed down a rat hole on nuclear plants that weren’t completed, and TVA was the leader in that. Other utilities canceled plants much more quickly than TVA.”
Plants had problems
There was a period when all of TVA’s existing reactors â€” five at the time â€” were shut down because of construction defects, improper documentation or other problems.
“The issue was about anything you could imagine: incompetency of management, some nuclear safety issues, a backlog of work on NRC requirements, poor maintenance of equipment,” said Oliver Kingsley, TVA’s chief nuclear officer from 1988 to 1997.
He arrived after the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission had placed all of TVA’s reactors on its watch list of troubled plants. His assignment: to home in on and fix the problems.
Eventually, things turned around: “We got both Sequoyah units (north of Chattanooga) up and reworking. We got Watts Bar licensed. We got units two and three working again at Browns Ferry.”
Kingsley is now president of the World Association of Nu clear Operators and a former board member of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, created after the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant shook the country’s confidence in atomic energy. The organization set about establishing best practices for plants, performing evaluations and ensuring rigorous training of operators.
Four years earlier, a worker at Browns Ferry lit a candle to check for air leaks, setting a fire that spread. Before Three Mile Island, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had said the 1975 Browns Ferry fire was the nation’s worst nuclear accident. The fire safety requirements required nationally after that incident had still not been implemented at Browns Ferry when Kingsley arrived, he said. The troubled third reactor there shut down in 1985 and didn’t reopen until this past spring.
But TVA officials say those problems are in the past.
“Since we brought Sequoyah and Browns Ferry and a Watts Bar unit back into service, that fleet has operated extremely well,” said Bhatnagar, who is TVA’s senior vice president of nuclear generation, development and construction.
The one completed and working reactor at Watts Bar, Unit 1, began pumping out electricity in 1996, 23 years after construction began.
Its troubled twin reactor, on which TVA has already spent $1.7 billion, is the one the agency board has voted to complete.
Unit 1’s successful, if long-awaited, startup will provide a “good road map” for that, Kingsley said. “I think with their team, they’ll bring it in,” he said. “They know what the issues are. They just have to go out and fix them. I, personally, think they’re up to it.”
‘We can’t afford this’
The billions spent to build and run the nuclear plants can come out of ratepayers’ pockets.
Some say it’s not worth it.
“Nuclear power has been in a market-driven grave,” Freeman said. “It wasn’t Jane Fonda or Ralph Nader that killed it. It was the financial vice presidents of utilities who said, ‘We can’t afford this.’ ”
Now president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, Freeman was chairman of the TVA board for part of his tenure from 1977 to 1984. He said he was “dumbfounded” by the TVA board’s action this month to try to restart Watts Bar’s Unit 2.
Longtime TVA watchdog Stephen Smith worries that the project costs are again being underestimated and that once TVA gets deep in the spending, there’ll be no turning around. He said TVA lacks the transparency â€” and outside oversight â€” needed to ensure it won’t get into trouble again.
“It’s because of TVA’s failure to address energy efficiency for the last 20 years,” said Smith, with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “They’re desperate to get out and start building again.”
Freeman recalled that during his tenure, the TVA board approved a conservation program that included low-interest loans to insulate homes and put in heat pumps. It filled the same need as one nuclear reactor, he said. The program was dropped after he left the board.
“The nuclear crowd had started out saying it would be ‘too cheap to meter,’ ” Freeman said. “It didn’t quite make it. It was ‘too expensive to use.’ “