C.T. CARLEY: Rate hikes focus attention on TVA's nuclear capacity and plans

By C.T. Carley

For TVA’s fleet of nuclear power plants these are good times. Ratepayer increases due to spiking fuel costs of coal, oil and natural gas for the sixth straight month have focused new attention on nuclear power’s role in offsetting the high cost of fossil fuels and keeping electricity affordable.
Here in Mississippi and elsewhere in the Tennessee Valley, we’ve benefited from reliable and economical supplies of nuclear-generated electricity for so long that we’ve taken it for granted. But the increasing demand for electricity – and the need to reduce purchased-power costs and replace aging coal plants – has reminded us that doing something about it is never simple. All of this costs money – even though most other regions of the country will need to spend far more on modernizing their electric-power infrastructure than we will.
Fortunately, the performance of TVA’s nuclear plants has steadily improved over the past three decades – reactors are now generating electricity nearly 90 percent of the time, compared to less than 60 percent in the early 1980s. As a result, our region’s economy has benefited greatly from the increased production of nuclear-generated electricity.
Nonetheless, we learned a hard lesson: The decision back in the 1980s to halt construction work at Brown’s Ferry 1, Watts Bar 1, Yellow Creek and Bellefonte two-unit plant was a bad one. We live in an age of fuel-price volatility, but TVA’s policies were guided by the mistaken notion that the cost of oil, gas and coal – which combined account for about two-thirds of electricity production – would remain low. Quite to the contrary, the fuel cost adjustments we’re now experiencing might have been averted had nuclear plant construction proceeded without interruption.
Case in point: TVA is currently considering whether to complete the Bellefonte plant in Alabama. Construction of the two Bellefonte reactors started in 1974 but was never finished. By 1988, unit one was 88 percent complete, and unit two 58 percent. But that same year, after 14 years of construction and $6 billion had been spent, construction was stopped. Now, 12 years later, TVA does not yet have a publicly available estimate of what it would cost to complete the Bellefonte reactors. Still and all, completing the two units – and that would require complying with regulatory changes – would be less expensive than starting from scratch on a completely new plant.
Completion of the Browns Ferry 1 and Watts Bar 1 reactors has been successful. Both plants deliver large quantities of electricity reliably without polluting the air or emitting greenhouse gasses.
As TVA prepares its new Integrated Resource Plan to guide power generation and conservation policies for the next 20 years, I hope it will be a leader, not a follower. That would mean pursuing an aggressive policy to reduce the waste in energy use, while adopting new energy-efficient technologies. Increased use of renewable energy sources may help meet peak loads. But conservation and renewables will only go so far.
Completing the second unit at Watts Bar will add 1,100 megawatts of carbon-free electricity by 2013 – and save $300 million a year in projected purchased power costs. Beyond that we are going to need the Bellefonte reactors for base-load power. Consideration should also be given to the Yellow Creek site that was abandoned in 1984 when about 30 percent complete.
Longer term, TVA should pursue the idea of building small, modular nuclear plants to replace the inefficient and polluting coal-fired plants, some of which are almost 60 years old or older. Small reactors can be fabricated at factories and transported by railroad or barge. Barge transportation would fit the Yellow Creek site.
It’s encouraging that TVA recognizes the need to shape new energy policies for the future. Only by expanding energy supplies, along with improvements in efficiency, can we put the Tennessee Valley on the path toward a stronger economy, while addressing environmental concerns. But if you think it can be done without nuclear power, think again.

C.T. Carley is professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Mississippi State University. Contact him at ctcarley@bellsouth.net.