TVA pushes ahead with giant nuclear power complex

Construction of the nation's largest nuclear power system -- a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project -- continues despite questions over safety, cost, and the need for new reactors.

When completed by 1990, the TVA's $20 billion nuclear system will include 17 reactors at seven plants. The four-reactor plant at Hartsville, Tenn., will be the world's largest.

Only three of TVA's reactors, all at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama, are in operation now. In late February, another reactor, at TVA's Sequoyah plant near Chattanooga, became the first reactor licensed since the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania one year ago. Sequoyah was scheduled to begin operating this summer.

Does it make sense to proceed with such an ambitious nuclear program even before all the lessons of Three Mile Island have been applied? Is nuclear power still the cheapest way to go? Is TVA overbuilding at the possible expense of its consumers?These are among the key questions being asked by some of the residents of the Tennessee Valley, by nuclear critics, and others.

TVA chairman S. David Freeman says much of the future of the nuclear option for the nation will depend on how well the TVA handles its own nuclear program. He is convinced that additional safety measures taken by his staff and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since Three Mile Island will ensure safe operation of the TVA plants.

There are some who hoped TVA might turn away from its plans for massive nuclear development.

"TVA has been headed in the wrong direction," says Barry Commoner, well-known nuclear critic and professor of environmental science at Washington University in St. Louis. TVA, as a government agency, he says, has the responsibility of "pioneering a sensible power program," which he defines as one with a predominent emphasis on solar.

Others, such as economic consultant Charles Komanoff of New York, say the nuclear route to increased electric power is no longer the cheapest. The cost of nuclear safety measures is pushing the cost of nuclear power up so fast, says Mr. Komanoff, that coal-fired electric plants are today cheaper to build and run , even counting extensive antipollution devices on coal plants and the rising cost of coal.

The Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF), a nuclear industry organization, contends nuclear plants are still cheaper, but Mr. Komanoff disputes the AIF's calculation methods.

If TVA were deciding today whether to build a nuclear plant, it might choose another option, says James Cross, the authority's assistant power manager. But, he points out, the decisions to build the seven nuclear plants were made between 1966 and 1974. As each decision was made, he says, costs were compared to large coal-fired electric plants and nuclear always came out the cheapest.

Much has happened since 1974, however. The price of coal and anti-pollution "scrubbers" in coal plants has increased sharply. But so has the cost of nuclear safety measures required by the NRC.

A whole new list of safety designs and equipment has flowed from evaluations of the Three Mile Island incident. These make accurate cost predictions for nuclear plants uncertain, says Mr. Cross.

TVA's cost estimate of the Hartsville plant, which will be the world's biggest, has increased from $1.4 billion in 1972 to $3.5 billion in 1978 to $5.8 billion in 1980, as costs rose and completion dates were put further back.

With nuclear costs rising so fast, why proceed with all of the 13 uncompleted reactors? asks William Troy, coordinator of a coalition of 15 citizen groups in the Tennessee Valley. TVA residential consumers are upset, he says, about steadily increasing electric bills. Rates are still cheaper than the national average, he says, but TVA customers use more electricity than most families.

In large part because of TVA's heavy promotion of cheap electric power over the years, says Mr. Troy, "thousands of people are locked into electricity and they can't escape."

Construction work on nuclear plants already begun must go on, TVA officials insist. Money for the projects has been borrowed, and many of the contracts have been signed.

But in the long run, it would be cheaper, economist Komanoff calculates, to abandon a nuclear plant on which less than 40 percent of the funds have been committed and build a coal-fired plant instead. Over a 30-year period the coal plant would be cheaper, because nuclear plant costs are rising so much faster today than coal plant costs, he said in telephone interview.

Lynn Maxwell, chief of the TVA's power planning staff disagrees, citing the heavy investment costs. But he declined to cite specific cost comparisons on the option of halting construction of a nuclear plant in favor of a coal plant. Another TVA planner said no such comparisons have been made.

Construction on seven of the remaining 13 TVA reactors to be built is less than 14 percent completed. Work on three reactors is less than 5 percent completed. But, for example, on one of two reactors only 2 percent completed, about 40 percent of the funds have been completed, says Mr. Maxwell.

But has the TVA been planning for more power production than justified by future power demands?

Yes, said the General Accounting Office (GAO) in a 1978 report. The GAO, using its own calculations, said TVA was greatly overestimating demand for electrical power for the year 2000 by 7,000 to 25,000 million kilowatts. Since all of the TVA nuclear reactors not yet operating will produce only 16 million kilowatts, this criticism put the need for all these new plants in question.

The TVA revised its forecasts downward -- substantially.

In a 1979 report, the GAO said TVA's demand forecasts were still too high. TVA had already begun revising its forecast downward, again.

Could further, major downward revisions occur? "Sure," says Mr. Maxwell. Forecasts, he explains, are based on economic activity, the price of electricity , alternate sources of power, and conservation efforts. The TVA's conservation program is a "very aggressive" one, he adds.

A further major downward revision of future power demands would again expose the TVA to the charge of overbuilding.

Currently the TVA's medium forecast of electric power needed by its customers in the year 2000 is nearly 50 million kilowatts, more than the 44 million kilowatts that will be available from all TVA sources when all of its nuclear plants are scheduled to be fully operating in 1990. Nevertheless, TVA may not need all the power it will have in 1990 until the year 2000, Mr. Cross says.

The medium forecast is based partially on a 3.5 percent growth in economic activity in the region. But a sluggish economy and rising prices of electricity have kept demand for TVA electricity about level since 1978. Further national economic troubles could force reductions in current power forecasts.

Meanwhile, adjusting to declining forecasts, TVA chairman Freeman has ordered construction work suspended on four reactors at three plants. But all four reactors are still scheduled for completion by 1990, says a TVA spokesman.

Even critics like Professor Commoner do not fault chairman Freeman personally for the nuclear program, since most of the key decisions were made before he arrived at TVA.

And Mr. Freeman, who took office in 1977, has not been sitting idly by watching the nuclear plants go up. He has launched a series of programs aimed at perfecting coal-burning technology, promoting solar power, and conserving energy. All of TVA's conservation efforts, however, will not eliminate the need for even a single reactor now planned, says Mr. Cross.

TVA spokesmen stress that persons with dissenting viewpoints in the organization are free to air them. But when the Monitor asked two key TVA nuclear officials if any informed personnel have raised any serious objections to proceeding with the nuclear program -- on grounds of safety or cost, for example -- they said they knew of such objections.

The Sequoyah nuclear plant, at Soddy Daisy in a rural part of Tennessee, could become the litmus test for the nuclear industry in the United States.

As the first plant licensed to load fuel and begin limited operation after Three Mile Island, it has been the focus of unusual safety measures both by the TVA and the NRC.

But as this summer's scheduled operation of the Sequoyah plant approaches, there are a number of unsettled safety questions concerning TVA's nuclear program:

* The NRC has drawn up a long, post-Three Mile Island list of "unresolved" safety issues regarding Sequoyah that must be met before operations begin. But some of the so-called "long term" lessons of TMI will not be applied to Sequoyah until after it is scheduled to begin operation, according to NRC and TVA officials.

* There has been no full explanation so far as to why the only other nuclear plant the TVA now operates, Browns Ferry in northern Alabama, suddenly stopped operating on three occasions between Feb. 10 and Feb. 15. The FBI has investigated the matter and made a private report to the Justice Department. TVA spokesmen are saying only that the problem was "not mechanical." Eight TVA employees at the plant, which suffered a crippling fire in 1977, were temporarily suspended after the shutdowns but have been sent back to work.

Was some kind of sabotage effort involved? Or, as some nuclear officials speculate privately, was there an effort to gain overtime pay which comes with the many extra steps required after a shutdown?

Also at Browns Ferry, the TVA announced in early March that in spite of the plant's security system, a female clerical worker carried a handgun into the plant in her purse undetected. She turned herself in, saying she carried the handgun while off duty and had not meant to carry into the plant.

* And at Sequoyah, an employee was suspended for taking pictures without permission during the recent fuel loading.

Since TMI, the TVA has taken a number of steps to help insure safe operation of what will be the nation's greatest concentration of nuclear plants at the completion of five other TVA plants -- now scheduled for 1990.

TVA has set up a nuclear safety review staff which it says is "not swayed" by power needs or construction schedules; lowered allowable occupational radiation exposure for TVA employees, noting that the debate over effects of exposure is "still open;" decided to limit future TVA nuclear plants to the seven sites where its plants already are built or are being built; begun providing additional training for plant operators.

"I think TVA has one of the finest programs of plant personnel of any place I can think of." says Lynn E. Weaver, director of the School of Nuclear Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

In spite of such steps, nuclear critics such as Jeannie Honicker, of Nashville, are concerned that NRC has granted Sequoyah exceptions to some NRC safety standards.

NRC Sequoyah project manager William Cottle, says the plant is only licensed to load fuel and operate at up to 5 percent power. Within that limit, he says, "some waivers of certain quality of equipment have been granted and some safety measures such as a ten-mile radius evacuation plan "don't fully comply" now with NRC requirements, says Mr. Cottle. But the NRC board is not likely to grant the Sequoyah a license for greater power operation until such exceptions are met.

Some of the long-term changes recommended by the NRC from TMI are "not really necessary over that short period of time" between full power operation and the time when such changes are required by the NRC -- six months in the case of some changes at Sequoyah -- said Mr. Cottle.

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