- 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
When nuclear critics learned that the Browns Ferry plant had already had sixty-five “abnormal occurrences” in its short life—Unit 1 went into operation in August, 1974; Unit 2 in March, 1975—and demanded that the TVA board halt its nuclear construction program, TVA chairman Wagner’s only response was that nuclear power was still safer than highway driving. The Browns Ferry accident was not even discussed at the regular board meeting following the occurrence until the issue was raised by the press. At that meeting TVA approved $7 million of further expenditures for the Hartsville Nuclear Plant to be located outside Nashville. It is slated to be the world’s largest nuclear plant when completed.
For TVA engineers, the Browns Ferry accident was an ego buster. It was the first major flaw in a record of accomplishment that had gained them international fame. Their hope to have Browns Ferry operational again in a “few months” proved too optimistic, as the start-up date stretched to eighteen months, at a cost to the agency of $10 million a month. They were further embarrassed when the accident became a major item of evidence cited by California nuclear critics in support of a referendum in that state for a moratorium on nuclear plants.
It is the question of accountability, of how TVA makes decisions about nuclear power, strip mining, dams, etc., that is at the heart of the region’s dissatisfaction with the agency. As previously observed, three men, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for nine-year terms, exercise the full authority of the unusually openended TVA act. Not until 1975, when pressure from the press and the public forced them to do so, did the three directors ever hold an open board meeting.
TVA has contended that the structure of the agency allows it to have freedom not allotted to the average plodding bureaucracy. On one occasion, Chairman Wagner cited a noisy showdown with TVA’s nuclear critics at the Knoxville headquarters building as a good example of why the agency needs to be free to make decisions unhampered by public service commissions, governors, or a voting electorate. “If we built power plants this way, we’d still be operating by kerosene lamps,” he said, after both sides had made emotional speeches for and against TVA’s nuclear program.
The authority to pass along rate increases and fuel costs without the scrutiny of the public or some administrative body in the states has become a major source of disillusionment with TVA. Scottsboro, Alabama, attorney Bill Garner, a former assistant attorney general of that state, told a U.S. Senate oversight panel in 1975, “I’m a second class citizen from Alabama … because I live in the TVA part of Alabama. If anyone … who doesn’t live in our area wants to complain about his light bill, he can … talk to his State senator .… But I have to drive all the way to Washington, B.C.” Widespread agreement with Garner’s position led Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton, with the support of Governors Wallace of Alabama, Waller of Mississippi, and Carroll of Kentucky, to propose that the TVA board be expanded to include four new members, to be nominated by the governor of each state and confirmed by the Senate. “It seems to me that the citizens of the state of Tennessee should have some input into TVA,” Governor Blanton said. He was opposed on that notion, however, by Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, who argued that TVA was “a national asset rather than a regional institution.”
Until 1972, when President Nixon appointed Bill Jenkins, a 38-year-old Rogersville, Tennessee, attorney to the board, no native Tennessean or mountaineer had ever served as a TVA director. Although Jenkins’ appointment was widely assailed by strip-mine critics because of his controversial reign as supervisor of strip-mine reclamation in Tennessee, many conservationists came to praise him for his insistence on open board meetings, his opposition to the spiraling costs of TVA nuclear plants, and his hostility to land condemnations by the agency. On matters in which he disagreed with the board majority and the staff, Jenkins admitted that he had to look outside the agency for information and advice because he had no staff available to him. When he sought to get accurate information on the death and injury rates in deep mines which sold coal to TVA, for instance, Jenkins found that TVA had no data, and he had to turn to a friend in the Bureau of Mines for the information.
Part of the agency’s problems with the valley’s people has been a widespread feeling that reflects lack of faith in its credibility. Kentucky farmer Al Puckett put it bluntly: “Farmers in our area don’t trust TVA.” J. W. Bradley, the head of Save Our Cumberland Mountains, a Tennessee anti-strip-mining group, charged that the agency’s employees “willingly accept loads of rock, mud and slate disguised as coal [from coal suppliers] even though they know they’re being defrauded.” Video tapes supplied by Bradley’s organization showing the practice taking place were sufficiently convincing to a House of Representatives investigative committee for it to demand an explanation from TVA. TVA’s general manager, Lynn Seeber, admitted that layer-loading of trucks, as it was called, had occurred, but blamed sampling techniques. As a result of the charges, sampling devices now probe coal loads at varying points rather than at fixed spots known to the coal companies.