cover_story (2005-46)

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TVA’s region is about to find out

Bill Baxter, TVA chairman—“Brown’s Ferry Unit I…will pay for itself in 84 months, then will help to pay down debt”

Skila Harris, TVA director—“In the utility business you have to be looking out there, a few years ahead”

Smith—“Nuclear power plants are as vulnerable to Murphy’s Law as anything else designed, built and managed by humans”

Brendan Hoffman, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen—“There are all kinds of reasons not to do nuclear, but cost is the only thing they [the utility industry] thinks about”

TVA’s region is about to find out by Barry Henderson

Nuclear electric-power generation, which supplies about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, has remained essentially dormant for decades as an option for addressing growing demand for new power supplies.

It is now being rejuvenated with federal assistance, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, is looking to be a contributing part of that resurgence.

Once a leading proponent of nuclear energy among the nation’s—indeed the world’s—electric utilities, TVA is embarking on a course that could bring the nuclear alternative back into the forefront of options for new, large-scale power-generation facilities. Under the impetus of a utility consortium’s selection process, its unfinished Bellefonte plant site near Scottsboro, Ala., is under consideration for a fresh licensing application and a total redesign.

And while environmentalists and their organizations have been traditionally opposed to nuclear energy, the air pollution from coal-fired power plants and the threat it poses to public health and to the planet itself in the form of global warming has caused a rift among greens as to the advisability of pursuing new nuclear-electric plants. Regardless of the opposition, and on top of its own attempts to improve the effluents of its smokestacks, TVA is going ahead with its own nuclear agenda.

The Knoxville-based utility, which generates up to 30 percent of the electricity for its seven-state region at its three existing nuclear plants and about 60 percent at its 11 coal-fired plants, had gone through a painful reduction in its ambitious nuclear program in the 1980s. Saddled by what was then more than $30 billion in debt and demoralized by the length and costs of licensing and construction, the utility quit thinking in terms of new nuclear plants and mothballedseveral that were under construction.

Its debt reduced by more than $5 billion and demand for power increasing, TVA crept into the nuclear rehabilitation picture in May of 2002 when its leadership decided to reactivate Unit I at Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant in North Alabama. Idled since 1985 by safety concerns, the first TVA reactor, dating from the 1960s, has been undergoing $1.8 billion in modifications, including enlarged capacity, since then and could go back on line in 2007. “It will be the first nuclear unit to start up in this country in the 21st century, just as Watts Bar Unit I [near Spring City, Tenn.] was the last unit to go on line in the 2Oth century,” says Bill Baxter, chairman of the TVA board of directors. He looks forward to more nuclear generation, including the Bellefonte possibility and the idea that Watts Bar Unit II could be put into service, possibly by 2010.

The return to the nuclear option is being fueled by two federal government decisions.

First, in 1994, the year Watts Bar Unit I began generating power, the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to combine and streamline the licensing process, putting construction and operating permits together under a single application for the first time. That alone did not stimulate new applications from the utility industry, still stymied by cost and risk factors and by undeveloped rules and regulations.

As the DOE added to that incentive with its Nuclear Power 2010 program, in which the federal government would share 50-50 in the development costs of detailed advancements in nuclear engineering designs, such energy engineering giants as General Electric and Westinghouse renewed their efforts to produce better, more efficient and safer nuclear reactors.

So, in November of 2003, a consortium of electric utilities formed under the name NuStart. It now includes Constellation Energy of Baltimore, Duke Energy of Charlotte, EDF International North America, which is a D.C.-based French subsidiary, Entergy Nuclear of Jackson, Miss., Exelon Generation of Philadelphia, Florida Power & Light, Westinghouse Electric of Pittsburgh, Progress Energy of Raleigh, Southern Co. and GE Energy of Atlanta, along with TVA.

Marilyn Kray, the Entergy official who is president of the NuStart consortium, says the group recognized that additional “baseload power” was required from the nuclear industry. “We put GE and Westinghouse on notice that engineering for advanced technology would be needed,” she says, and the group began looking for the best possible sites for new nuclear plants.

The search was narrowed to six sites, mostly in the southeastern United States, and NuStart picked two, including Bellefonte and Entergy’s Grand Gulf nuclear plant site in Mississippi, as the two to pursue.

Bellefonte was selected, in TVA’s estimation, because of its geographic location within transmission reach of most major power markets in the eastern United States and its existing infrastructure, including river intakes, cooling towers and an electric switchyard. Also important considerations were community support from the Scottsboro area and the state of Alabama, and the potential for partnerships, with TVA being open to partnering with other nuclear operating companies or possibly some of its own 168 power distributors. Baxter says the new plant itself, which would be built adjacent to the incomplete and obsolete reactor building, could cost somewhere between $1.5 and $2.5 billion to construct, but the electricity it produces will be cheap in terms of fuel and plant operation.

Meanwhile, Congress added to the incentive pot. Most recently, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 allows for more than $13 billion worth of grants, subsidies, loan guarantees and tax breaks to the nuclear industry to help it pay for research and development, construction, operating and decommissioning, shut-down and clean-up costs. Risk insurance to cover any delays in licensing and construction of the first few new reactors is also included.Opponents of nuclear power and any expansion of its uses are disturbed by the federal incentives and their costs to taxpayers, as well as the risks associated with nuclear energy and its role in the potential proliferation of nuclear weaponry.

Brendan Hoffman, campaign organizer for PublicCitizen, a 35-year-old, D.C.-based consumer advocacy organization with about 150,000 members nationwide, says there are dozens of reasons to shrink away from the nuclear option, but foremost is “cost.”

“It’s the most expensive and most convoluted way to boil water,” Hoffman says of the nuclear process. He says no new nuclear plants would be built in the United States without major subsidy. “The only way is if the government pays them to do it.

“They (in the nuclear industry) like to tell you the operating costs are low, and they are,” Hoffman says, “but the construction costs are too high to make those plants economically feasible.”

Hoffman says his organization is among 313 groups in all 50 states that signed onto a petition this past June that terms nuclear power “the least attractive, least economic and least safe avenue to pursue.”

Likewise, Stephen Smith, executive director of the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, opposes new nuclear investment, preferring that the money be spent on research into cleaning up coal-burning for power production or other power sources, including renewables, such as wind and solar power.

Smith says he realizes that the renewables would not currently meet a significant percentage of power demand, but he believes coal could if its gasification technology were perfected and applied to future power-plant construction.

“And they’re not even thinking about efficiency,” Smith says, citing such energy economies as using fluorescent, rather than incandescent lighting in homes as well as commercial and industrial buildings. He says government or utility incentives toward energy conservation could make a huge dent in power demand, but those options are hardly being explored.

Smith does concede that, in the short run, the utilities are bound by demand to stay with a mix of power-producing options that includes existing, aging, coal-fired power plants and nuclear generating facilities.

Skila Harris, the other director, along with Baxter, remaining from the three-member board that’s to be expanded to nine part-time directors within the next several months, says that mix is essential. A supporter of nuclear expansion “if it proves feasible,” Harris says, “We need to make sure we continue that diversification. If you are too dependent on one fuel or technology, it makes you more vulnerable.”

Harris, who formerly worked with the national synthetic fuels (Synfuels Corp.) effort, says nothing would make her happier than to see an emerging technology such as coal gasification become economically viable. “We looked at the possibility of an integrated coal gasification plant for Bellefonte,” she says, but the numbers didn’t work, and the Texaco, Inc., technology on which it was based has been bought by GE for further development.

“GE has an attitude that there’s going to be a breakthrough somewhere, and they want to be there,” Harris says. She says that “as a country we’ve been distracted by current needs and we tend to lose track of long-term goals.

“In the utility business you have to be looking out there a few years ahead,” Harris says, and Baxter concurs. Of gasification technology, Baxter says, “We’re keeping a very close eye on that,” and he suggests that TVA’s next coal-burning plant, if there is ever to be one, could well take advantage of developing gasification techniques.

Baxter says the utility has to turn toward nuclear power. Hydroelectric power, TVA’s original underpinning, is not expandable at its current level, producing up to 20 percent of the valley’s electricity demand. Wind power is now good for only a tiny fraction of the TVA load, and solar has a very limited application. “What are your realistic options today…and for our lifetimes?” Baxter asks. “Solar and hydrogen are not economic alternatives today,” leaving nuclear generation as the prime candidate, despite TVA’s heralded attempts to clean up its coal-plant emissions at a claimed expense of $1 million per day.

Baxter and company have gained some unlikely supporters.

Patrick Moore, a founder of the ultra-environmentalist “Greenpeace” movement and now the head of an organization called Greenspirit Strategies, asks his own question: “What does environmental extremism have to do with nuclear energy?” And he, too, provides his own answer: “There is now a great deal of scientific evidence showing nuclear power to be an environmentally sound and safe choice.

“I believe the majority of environmental activists, including those at Greenpeace, have now become so blinded by their extremist policies that they fail to consider the enormous and obvious benefits of harnessing nuclear power to meet and secure America’s growing energy needs.” Moore says in a statement delivered to the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Resources last April.

Moore, who is accused by some activists of selling out to the industry, is joined by James Lovelock, a revered British environmentalist and scientist who has come to call nuclear power “the one safe, available energy source.”

The Times of London said of his 2004 reversal of position on nuclear power, in which he called the “Greens” misguided, that, “to Lovelock’s legions of admirers, it was as if the Pope had changed his mind on abortion.”

In Lovelock’s words, “Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. Those fears are unjustified…nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.

“By all means,” Lovelock says in a position paper published last year, “let us use the small input from renewables sensibly. But only one immediately available source does not cause global warming, and that is nuclear energy.”

Those sentiments from former nuclear opponents are music to the ears of such advocates as Sherrell Greene, director of nuclear technology at Oak Ridge NationalLaboratory. Greene’s view is that “if we are to reduce greenhouse gases in significant quantities, there is, as Lovelock says, ‘no sensible alternative to nuclear energy.’”

In fact, Greene says, “I look at the alternatives and there aren’t any.”

Greenhouse gases include the carbon dioxide released in vast quantities in the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas to produce electricity.  Also included is the CO2 from fuels burned to propel motor vehicles or produce heat for homes and industries, among other things. That CO2 is the principal culprit in the theory that global warming, a threat to global ecosystems, is a manmade phenomenon. As that theory is ever more widely accepted by scientists and industrialists and laymen, ways other than burning fossil fuels are being explored in attempts to ameliorate the effect. In Greene’s estimation, global warming has made nuclear energy the “only reliable, environmentally sustainable and economical” choice left to power producers, and he deems it “acceptable, from a [nuclear] proliferation standpoint.”

Citing facts, figures and legitimate fears of both proliferation and the thousands of years of potential hazards from storing high-level nuclear wastes which emit ionizing radiation for almost unimaginably lengthy half-lives, the nuclear detractors remain firm.

The fear level has increased since Sept. 11, 2001, when the specter of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant  was raised and many thousands of deaths could be projected as a result. Though no nuclear plant accidents have resulted in deaths in this country, a frightening fire beneath a Brown’s Ferry control room in 1975 disabled the emergency cooling system and caused an immediate, successful shutdown. And the 1979 partial core meltdown at Three-Mile Island, Pa., released radioactive gases into the air but was contained and caused no deaths or serious injuries. The Chernobyl reactor meltdown disaster in the Ukraine in 1986 killed between 45 and 56 persons, depending on the source, but may have  lingering health effects that are as yet undocumented.

TVA and the power industry in general consider the technology much safer today than when those accidents occurred, but opponents decry what they perceive as lax security surrounding nuclear plants and the handling of the byproducts of reactor fission.

The Public Citizen - endorsed petition/statement refers to nuclear power as “unnecessary,” “too expensive,” “too dangerous,” and the use of which to address global warming would “exacerbate the problems” by diverting resources from development of technologies needed to truly mitigate the warming effect.

The statement contends that CO2 emissions caused by electricity generation could be nearly halved by 2025, when most of a new generation of nuclear plants could be on line, by instead addressing renewables, curbing auto emissions, and stimulating conservation measures and efficiency in electrical appliances nationwide.

Worldwide, the statement says, it would require 1,000 new reactors at a cost of trillions of dollars, to impact global warming significantly, and the production of weapons-grade plutonium in such a scenario would make security from weapons proliferation nearly impossible.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s Smith, who has served as a TVA watchdog and whose organization has branched out across the South, says the sheer expense of such a commitment in dollar terms is a pipedream, and that proliferation remains a nightmare.

In this country, Smith says, the opposition to additional nuclear plants has been damped by the streamlined licensing procedure, leaving detractors less opportunity to oppose new plants on either general or specific (as in location) terms.

He says that, since no one has applied under the new procedure and the rules seem unclear both to the NRC and the utilities, he is uncertain how the permit process will play out, but he’s skeptical whether public input will be taken into account.

Smith views the whole notion of federally sponsored nuclear expansion as a “shame on the nation that poses a security risk all across the globe.”

Strong arguments on both sides of the nuclear issue may leave an uncomfortable cloud in the minds of many Americans, but those who’ve endorsed the Bellefonte project in Jackson County, Ala., are effusive in their praise of the idea. Goodrich Rogers, president of that county’s Economic Development Authority, says the area “has been supportive of nuclear power since the 1970s” and there is hope there that a plant will be built and operated there “this time.”

TVA is writing down the $4.6 billion it has invested in Bellefonte, which was mothballed in 1988, but hopes to recoup part of its investment by donating the property to the consortium as its “in-kind” contribution to up-front costs, if the consortium is successful.

Operation of the plant, if it is built on that site, might be the responsibility of TVA or some other utility, depending on what contracts are worked out.

Jack Bailey, TVA’s vice president for nuclear assets and strategic projects, is the TVA representative on the NuStart consortium’s board. He says NuStart is expected to develop the license, get final design engineering completed, then transfer the license to TVA or some as-yet-undetermined partnership that could include other utilities, private financial interests, or, possibly, TVA power distributors. Any contracts that derive from those partnerships will determine who gets what shares of electricity produced at the plant.

There is also the possibility, Bailey says, that if someone other than TVA or a TVA partnership ends up owning and operating the Bellefonte plant, they could sell power to TVA or ship it out of the TVA region. All of those options should be resolved, Bailey says, “in the next couple of years.”

The government incentive package that was advanced by the Bush administration and put in place by Congress after four years of wrangling over it, Bailey says, has been put in place “to minimize the risk and let the market solve the problems.”

The proposal on the table, he says, is for a two-unit plant using Westinghouse AP 1,000 pressurized-water reactors. They would have passive, gravity-fed, rather than active, pump-driven and redundant emergency cool-down systems, which would reduce cost.

Each unit would produce about 1,130 megawatts of electricity when fully operational. By comparison, TVA’s three operating nuclear plants produce a total of about 5,700 megawatts of power. The existing TVA reactors at Brown’s Ferry, Watts Bar and the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant at Soddy-Daisy near Chattanooga have the redundant, fail-safe pumped-water system for emergency cool-down conditions.

The pressurized-water reactor style has been prevalent in this country, where a total of 64 nuclear plants are in operation, while other sorts of reactors have been tested and used successfully in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere.

China has an aggressive nuclear energy program, hoping to meet its wildly expanding energy needs. Other nations, mindful of China’s coal reserves and worried that the mostly low-grade, dirty coal there would be burned without full consideration of its environmental impact, are not officially or unofficially opposing nuclear plant construction in China, or in India for that matter. Those billion-plus populations and their rising economic expectations and their maturing nuclear energy programs make nuclear power look good there to the environmentalists whose heads have turned toward nuclear, ORNL’s Greene says.

So, TVA and the NuStart consortium are hardly the only electric power interests in the world aiming toward new nuclear power plants.

Even within the consortium, but separate from the reactor program TVA is participating in, Duke Power and Progress Energy, two North Carolina companies, say they are preparing a site application for a new reactor. And Constellation Energy, another NuStart member, says it has plans to work with AREVA, a French reactor manufacturer, on a possible future reactor to be located on U.S. soil.

Close to home, the Watts Bar Plant’s Unit II has TVA’s attention because it already has a construction permit that could be updated in order to bring that reactor on line several years before the Bellefonte proposal could be realized and put into service, perhaps by the time actual construction could start at the Alabama plant.

The best estimates from NuStart’s President Kray are that construction at Bellefonte, following the licensing procedure and financing arrangements, would not begin until 2010.

That schedule fits with the TVA projection of its need for new baseload generation capability. Bailey says that projection calls for increased baseload demand in 2015.

It may seem a long way down the road, but as Harris says, TVA has to look down that road. She and Baxter, whose appointments to the board run until 2008 and 2010 respectively, will have to convince a majority of the soon-to-be-appointed nine-member board to go along with their appraisal of the nuclear option. But since President Bush, an advocate of the expansion of nuclear-power generation,  will be making those appointments, there is little doubt that the bigger board will be nearly unanimous on that issue.

Nuclear power in the valley appears here to stay, and with continued federal support, it’s likely to keep growing.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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