- Historic Sites
The TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be
What has befallen “the greatest peacetime achievement of twentieth-century America”s since the New Deal
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
While TVA argues that it not only supervises the stripping but also requires reclamation in its contracts, TVA strip mines look no different, and in many cases look worse, than strip mines that sell to private utilities. As a matter of fact, when the state of Kentucky has cited TVAcontracted companies for violations of state law, TVA inspectors have tended to look the other way, comparisons of the state and TVA inspection records indicate. The fact that TVA in 1974 was secretly considering strip mining coal reserves that it owned on twenty-five thousand acres of the presently unstripped Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, until a newspaper exposed the plan, gave credence to arguments by conservationists that TVA’s strip-mine practices reflected a greater concern for cheap coal than they did for setting a higher standard of excellence for utilities. A TVA reclamation director, James Curry, said, “Strip mining is part of the American way.” That may be true, observed Caudill, for an agency interested in cheap power and power promotion, but it “remains a mockery of the conservationist vision of George Norris.”
TVA believed that the demands on its system left it little choice but to pursue the courses it took. In 1951, 85 per cent of the 3,541,000 kilowatts of power generated by TVA was from hydro capacity. By 1955 the agency’s output was 9,400,000 kilowatts (a full half of which went to federal installations like AEC’s Oak Ridge and Paducah uranium enrichment plants), with 60 per cent of the total power produced by coal-fired plants. Today its generating capacity is 23.3 million kilowatts, 80 per cent of which comes from twelve steam plants using coal. The agency projects that its capacity will increase to 47 million kilowatts in 1985—a whopping 66 per cent increase in a tenyear span. To generate that power the TVA planned the most massive nuclear construction program of any utility in the nation.
If its plans are fulfilled, TVA will retain its role as the nation’s largest power producer and largest consumer of coal, and will become the nation’s largest generator of power from nuclear energy. Such TVA critics as the former Federal Energy Administration adviser John Gibbons, who went on to become head of the University of Tennessee Environment Center, charged that the agency grossly overestimated power demand growth and would find itself in a few years with excess capacity and higher-than-average rates. In 1974 the power demand on the system actually declined by 14 per cent, but TVA explained that that aberrance in an otherwise growth-oriented region was due to the recession of the period and to power conservation.
Despite its commitment to selling power at the lowest possible rates, TVA also has not escaped criticism over its rate structure. In fact, the agency sells power on a “cost of service” basis, meaning that larger users pay lower rates than those who use less power. TVA has denied charges that this means that users have an incentive to consume, not conserve. Whatever the agency’s protestations to the contrary, however, TVA’s rate structure has not changed basically since 1953 when, in a less conservation-minded era, the TVA staff proudly admitted in an agency report that its rates were designed to be “promotional.”
TVA has proceeded with the planning and construction of seven nuclear plants—five were in the process of being built or sited in 1976—despite growing evidence that its nuclear-powered electric plants may be costlier than originally estimated. It has also had to contend with nuclear critics in the state where the atom bomb was born. TVA’s Sequoyah plant—named for the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet—many months behind schedule in construction, doubled in estimated completion costs. The cost overruns on that plant alone would raise consumer bills by about 2 per cent. Power from other sources to make up for the delayed construction of Sequoyah would raise electric bills by another 5 per cent.
On March 22, 1975, TVA made its first major contribution to the nuclear safety controversy when a fire underneath the control room of its Browns Ferry nuclear plant near Athens, Alabama, knocked out both units of the world’s largest nuclear generating facility. According to TVA the fire started when a candle being used by an employee to check for air leaks ignited a sealant on electrical cables that controlled the plant’s emergency core-cooling system; the flames then spread to other wiring, knocking out the automatic safeguards designed to prevent a nucle’ar mishap. Had a major water coolant pipe broken during the critical minutes of the eight-hour fire before TVA operators employed manual core-cooling controls, “We would have been in trouble,” said Jack R. Calhoun, TVA’s nuclear branch chief.
The trouble, according to nuclear critic David Comey of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, would have been a “catastrophe”—a melt down of the reactor’s core, spreading radiation for hundreds of miles. Comey said only “good luck” saved TVA. TVA immediately discounted such a notion, and launched an intensive press campaign to counter the charges of critics and a suspicious press corps.