The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, July 21, 2001

Nuclear revival
TVA has facilities waiting


The Tennessee Valley Authority acquired its whopping $26 billion debt in large part because soaring costs forced the agency to abandon its nuclear program in midstream.

Now TVA has a genuine shot at reviving that program and reaping the financial rewards for its ratepayers.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that TVA is taking a close look at finishing the Bellefonte nuclear plant in northern Alabama. TVA poured $4 billion into that facility before stopping construction in 1988. Bellefonte is about 70 percent completed, which makes it a prime candidate for revival.

Alabama officials are urging TVA to reopen an idle nuclear unit at the Browns Ferry plant, the Journal reported. The agency also has a partially completed unit at the Watts Bar nuclear facility in Tennessee.

Against a background of growing national concern over the threat of California-style power shortages, the generating potential of TVA's dormant nuclear units is impressive.

If the Bellefonte plant is completed, it will produce 2,400 megawatts of power. That represents the combined generating capacity of eight or nine of the 18 new power plants proposed in Kentucky.

Nuclear power is getting a second chance in the United States thanks to the power crisis in California and the Bush administration's strong interest in stepping up energy production.

Bush wants to put nuclear power plants back on the table. Nuclear power produces negligible air pollution, has an excellent safety record in the United States and western Europe and has become increasingly efficient over the past decade.

Japan and several western Europe countries rely on nuclear for most of their power production.

With its mothballed facilities, TVA is in a good position to benefit from a comeback for nuclear power. For one thing, the agency wouldn't have to fight hammer-and-tongs against environmentalist groups in order to acquire new plant sites.

Even so, the Journal notes the federal utility could incur major costs in trying to bring these units on line.

Still, TVA may be able to sell some of the units to private utilities eager to increase their generating capacity as they bid for business in deregulated power markets.

Selling the nuclear units would allow TVA to substantially reduce its debt and offer power at lower rates to its customers in the Tennessee Valley.

It's good news for power customers that TVA and other utilities at least have a chance to recoup something from their massive investments in nuclear power.

Only a few years ago, this possibility did not exist. Vestiges of the hysteria over the relatively minor Three Mile Island incident prevented rational discussion of nuclear power.

But that changed when wealthy California got a rude reality check about the importance of ensuring power production keeps up with the demands of a high-tech economy.

Referring to California's power woes, Craig Barrett, chief executive of Intel Corp., said, "Nuclear power is the answer, but it's not politically correct."

President Bush and Vice President Cheney are working on making nuclear power a more acceptable political option. If they succeed, the lights almost certainly will remain on in the rest of the nation.