TVA should use nuclear assets
TVA still has several big hurdles to clear before it can revive its nuclear program — the biggest one being the cost of restarting reactors and completing 25-year-old projects — but the agency is carefully exploring its options with an eye toward bringing at least some of the dormant units back on line.
As recently as a year ago, TVA had little hope of recovering the billions it spent on the construction of nuclear plants in the 1970s and 1980s.
But soaring energy costs last winter and the California power crisis combined to renew public interest in nuclear power. A poll commissioned earlier this year by the Associated Press showed rising public support for nuclear power and decreasing fear of all things nuclear.
A critical point for TVA and private utilities is that the Bush administration has broken the political taboo against openly advocating the construction of nuclear plants.
Bush, citing the excellent safety and environmental record of nuclear facilities, says there must be a place in America's energy program for nuclear power. The major elements of the president's energy plan, which includes $33 billion in tax breaks for energy development, were recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.
This should provide more encouragement for TVA officials who are studying the possibility of restarting a mothballed reactor at Browns Ferry in Alabama and finishing the construction of the Bellefonte nuclear plant in the same state.
The Bellefonte facility is about 75 percent finished. Bellefonte could play a major role in TVA's future plans — if the agency can find a way to finance the $2.8 billion needed to complete construction.
TVA officials have considered turning Bellefonte into a natural gas plant or using the site for a new plant that would burn gasified coal, the Associated Press reported.
High prices and the California energy crunch, which was caused in part by that state's dependence on high-priced natural gas, have dampened enthusiasm for natural gas as an energy source.
Moreover, TVA needs to shift power production away from coal-fired plants that are saddled with increasingly costly federal pollution control mandates.
That leaves nuclear power as the safest, cleanest and most efficient alternative.
Consider TVA's recent record in the nuclear energy field.
The agency's Sequoyah plant near Chattanooga has operated without interruption since 1994.
Last year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the TVA nuclear program top grades for safety. This achievement is noteworthy given that nuclear power plants throughout the nation have a remarkably good safety record.
TVA almost certainly will need help from investors to revive its nuclear program. But the sense is growing that nuclear power no longer is a bad financial bet.
The problems of the 1980s stemmed mainly from excessive public concern about the perceived hazards of nuclear power. This translated into onerous regulations and long, expensive legal fights over plant permits.
Since then nuclear power has proven its value in the United States and western Europe. Nuclear power plants provide 80 percent of the electricity generated in some European countries.
Now is an excellent time for TVA to put its nuclear assets to work for its customers. With nuclear hysteria fading, the agency has an opportunity to generate more low-cost power and spread the economic benefits across the Tennessee Valley.