Recalling TVA's Nuclear Missteps

If TVA starts down that road again, it'd be wise to consider mistakes of the past

We are still paying for TVA's stumble into the nuclear age.

By the late 1960s, TVA had a large cadre of construction workers who had built huge transmission lines across mountains, built dams and coal-fired plants to produce electricity. It seemed perfectly reasonable for the TVA board to proceed to keep these people busy by building nuclear power plants. A lot of nuclear power plants. All at one time.

Years later, TVA was selling nuclear reactors at fire-sale prices and Chairman Marvin Runyon was laying off thousands of workers.

TVA's first nuclear plant was at Browns Ferry, in North Alabama. It was the experience of building that plant that made TVA realize they cost much more than planned, they are much more complicated than dams and coal-fired plants, and regardless of the agency's construction experience, it did not have the expertise to build a nuclear plant.

I grew up a few miles from Browns Ferry, knew people in the community who worked there, and I worked as a reporter for area newspapers. If I can succinctly describe the root problem in the construction of the plant, I would say it was an attitude. With a nuclear plant, every pipe, every wire, and every switch had to be documented for the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, while the seat-of-the-pants can-do unions who built dams and coal fired plants had another idea: "We don't need no stinkin' plans."

So the construction lingered on. Things were built, things were torn out, things were rebuilt. Documentation was still spotty. But eventually the building ended, in 1974, millions over budget. By the time it was finished, improvements had been made in nuclear power plants and TVA learned enough to eventually hire a nuclear expert to ensure that Watts Barr and Sequoyah had fewer problems. But again, there was building, tear-downs, rebuilding.

When TVA plunged into the nuclear fiasco there were few questions raised. It was still taboo to criticize TVA. Until a fire at Browns Ferry in 1975. Until TVA debt ballooned. Until electricity rates skyrocketed. Until it was no longer possible to ignore monumental mistakes being made by the valley's largest sacred cow.

Almost 40 years on, the NRC recently rated Browns Ferry Unit One as the worst reactor in the nation and cited management of the plant for continuing temporary fixes rather than ferreting out root causes of problems. 'Twas ever thus. The thing Browns Ferry has had over the years is an operating license. One suspects that if it were not for the hell of getting another one, TVA would have abandoned Browns Ferry years ago. The reactors have been overhauled, renovated, and upgraded, but they are still patching problems. All three units were shut down for repairs for extended periods during the 1980s.

TVA has been hampered in its overall mission for three decades by the debt incurred during the nuclear plant building frenzy.

Now TVA is looking at continuing to construct the Bellefonte plant, which has been mothballed since Browns Ferry was completed. I much prefer nuclear plants, properly constructed, to coal-fired plants that pollute our air. But before TVA gets back into the nuclear-plant building business, the ratepayers and the congressional delegation need to ensure a few things.

Will the plant be the latest and safest available? There have been a lot of improvements in nuclear power plants since Browns Ferry and its successors. We certainly don't want to go down the same road again. The only thing we should keep at Bellefonte is the site. Raze everything else. Start over.

Since the nuclear construction industry has been moribund in this country for decades, who will TVA get to build the plant? Shouldn't TVA look to foreign expertise in nuclear construction, possibly in France, which produces most of its power with nuclear plants?

One hopes that TVA's history with nuclear power has not been forgotten. There is a long record of mistakes, over-spending, and safety lapses. If TVA is going to start up again, it needs to be a fresh start. But it also needs to be mindful of past mistakes.

Let's not do it again.