TVA should exploit opportunity
With the nation facing an increasing threat from energy shortages such as the disruptions in the natural gas supply that wreaked economic havoc in some parts of the country two winters ago, the time is right for TVA to expand its nuclear power program.
It certainly helps that the Bush administration sees the advantages of nuclear power, and is trying to help the nuclear power industry regain some of the momentum it lost in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident.
The post-Three Mile Island hysteria almost devastated TVA, which had to abandon several nuclear projects, including the unfinished Bellefonte plant in Hollywood, Ala. TVA officials shut down the Browns Ferry station in 1985.
Much of the $27 billion debt TVA accumulated in the 1980s and early 1990s stemmed from the agency's abortive investments in nuclear power.
Not surprisingly, agency officials are trying to recover some of those investments by restarting dormant nuclear units and, perhaps, finishing the Bellefonte plant.
The TVA board voted Friday to restart the mothballed Unit 1 reactor at Browns Ferry.
Again, not surprisingly, this move alarmed environmentalists. The environmental lobby has adopted the view that all things nuclear are to be greatly feared.
The fact is, nuclear power is clean — it creates very little pollution. If TVA switches some of its power generation capacity from coal to nuclear, the air in the Tennessee Valley will be cleaner.
Coal is the fuel source for about two-thirds of the power produced by TVA. These old coal-burning plants are relatively "dirty," and they're increasingly expensive to operate given Environmental Protection Agency regulations that require the installation of pollution control equipment.
"Going nuclear" is a strategy for protecting the environment, not harming it.
Environmentalists point to the "unsolved" problem of nuclear waste — a problem they've tried to keep the nation from solving — but the Bush administration is making progress in developing the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada.
As for safety, the nuclear power industry in western Europe and the United States has an outstanding record.
At one time, TVA received criticism — much of it deserved — for safety lapses at its nuclear plants. But two years ago the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave TVA's nuclear program top grades for safety.
Over the past decade nuclear power production in the United States has become safer and much more efficient than it was in the early 1980s. An example is TVA's Sequoyah plant near Chattanooga, which has operated without interruption for nearly eight years.
From the standpoint of efficiency, safety and environmental responsibility, TVA has a strong case for restarting the Browns Ferry reactor and finishing the Bellefonte facility.
The question that looms over the agency's nuclear ambitions is cost.
TVA officials estimate it will cost $1.8 billion to bring Unit 1 at Browns Ferry back on line. Finishing construction at Bellefonte could cost TVA as much as $3 billion.
The agency has made only modest progress in reducing its massive debt burden. That calls into question TVA officials' claim that they can reduce the $25 billion debt and pay for the Browns Ferry restart with existing revenues.
Agency officials have said in the past they hope to find a private partner to help finance the reactor restart. Private financing would remove the most serious objection to the revival of TVA's nuclear program.
Over the long term, nuclear power can play a significant role in meeting the growing demand for power in the Tennessee Valley. If TVA officials can solve the financing problem, they owe it to their customers to fully develop the agency's nuclear assets.