TVA should choose nuclear option
The same politically incorrect answer applies to the question of how the Tennessee Valley Authority can meet the needs of its power customers without producing smog and other forms of pollution.
Unlike aging coal-fired power plants, which generate about two-thirds of TVA's power, nuclear power plants emit no greenhouse gases. Nuclear power plants are clean and they generate lots of electricity: consider that one reactor at TVA's Browns Ferry facility can produce enough power to light 650,000 homes.
Marvin Runyon, a former chairman of TVA, recently told members of the TVA congressional caucus that the agency should convert to nuclear power to eliminate air pollution.
That answer still is not politically correct — U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee responded by saying TVA shouldn't opt for a "single solution" — but growing concern about pollution-belching coal-fired plants may spark a rethinking of the benefits and risks of nuclear power.
The risks of continuing to operate 50-year-old coal plants are clear.
By some estimates, coal-fired power plants produce one-third of all U.S. emissions of nitrogen oxide, the key ingredient of smog. Coal-fired plants also emit sulfur dioxide, which contributes to acid rain.
People with respiratory diseases suffer from exposure to smog. And coal miners face serious safety threats on a regular basis while supplying the fuel to keep the old power plants operating.
Against that, nuclear power is a relatively safe and clean power source. Keep in mind that no one was killed in the nuclear power industry's worst accident in the United States, the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island.
Nonetheless, a wave of anti-nuclear hysteria followed the accident at Three Mile Island. The hysteria and the political reaction to it hit TVA hard, forcing the agency to abandon its nuclear program and eat the debt accumulated during construction of the unfinished facilities.
But recent changes in public attitudes and the political environment are giving TVA an opportunity to revive its nuclear power program.
Polls show a growing number of Americans sees nuclear power as a viable alternative to high-cost electricity generated by gas-fired plants and "dirty" power produced by coal plants. President George W. Bush's energy plan gives nuclear plants a larger role in meeting the nation's future power needs.
A key concern about nuclear power — that there's no safe place to store reactor waste — should be resolved when the Yucca Mountain disposal facility in Nevada is completed.
TVA officials are in the process of refurbishing the Unit 1 reactor at Browns Ferry. If the agency decides to finish construction on the Bellefonte, Ala., plant, which is 70 percent complete, that facility would produce 2,400 megawatts of electricity — enough to power more than 1.1 million homes.
All of that power can be generated without threatening air quality in the Tennessee Valley and the Great Smoky Mountains. But no matter how much pollution control equipment TVA installs on the aging coal-fired plants — the agency is planning to invest $2.6 billion in pollution controls — those plants will continue to contribute to the smog problem in the Smokies.
Nuclear power may not be the only solution to TVA's pollution problems, but it definitely should be one of the solutions.