Saving Fish & Building Nukes: TVA's Non-Renewable Energy Path, PART III
For any reader interested in a knowledge base, this third in a four part series on the TVA creates a cache of knowledge not unlike an expandable book bag full of renewable energy and sustainable business texts. Already in the bag's main section is a background and early history of the Tennessee Valley Authority that shows the troubles and richness of the region, and the revolutionary and oppressive potential of a 'New Deal' in the mountains.
The "bunch of radicals" from part one show up again in the second installment, but now they operate in the shadows and strictures of war. The war ends with a bomb constructed with TVA electricity that, as if by magic fulfills the needs of a growing science-military-industrial establishment that has only to add the Federal Government to assume command of the world. As for the radicals, FBI agents and White Supremacist reactionaries alike hound them, convinced that they are friends of America's future enemy, Russia, as well as friends of labor and the Negro.
Moreover, for a still broader background, which can snug into the book-bag's left side pocket, readers who want can refer to the article about Georgia's Plant Vogtle--about which a lot more is yet in the pipeline--which contained a fairly thorough basic overview of the nature of the electricity grid and utility operation during the electric era, which is just a hundred twenty years old, after all. Though TVA functioned as a unique sidebar to regular utilities, its many lawsuits and battles with such companies illustrate the interplay between TVA and the more routinely capitalistic participants in the energy sector.
Finally, other of THC's articles, about organizations and events also tie into this TVA process that continues today. Lord willing and the creek don't rise, the final piece of this fascinating puzzle of American history will appear next week, with sequels in the nature of annual Britannica supplements to follow in the aftermath, now and again when inclination or opportunity make such output useful.
Very recently, readers have born witness to a view that, in relation to THC's perspective that the Southern U.S. has played a multi-sided central role in the drama of American history, a corollary point suggests that Appalachia's problems and prospects have remained close to the heart of Dixie's travails and triumphs, from the highest levels of poverty to the seeding of most social progress on the continent. Inevitably, evidence to support that will show up as TVA's story continues to unfold.
In addition, here again THC proffers a tidbit that, should the reader have the patience and diligence to consider it, will help tie together many disparate pieces of the investigations that reader and writer are undertaking here. David Walls wrote an evocative essay, "Naming Appalachia," in the very middle of the period under consideration today, in honor of a more venerable Appalachian scholar.
He suggested that "(t)he naming and redefining of Appalachia appears to have no end. ...Clearly there is no ultimate definition, only delineations that serve particular social, political, organizational, or academic interests. ...'Appalachian,' after all, has never become a symbol of self-identification for the vast majority of the region's people, for whom the community, county, state, and nation remain more important units of political identity. Despite the apparent decline in those features of the traditional mountain subculture supposedly characteristic of the region, interest in aspects of Appalachian culture is on the increase, as evidenced by the popularity of books on the region's folk arts, Appalachian Studies programs, and this Appalachian Symposium. As long as the people of the region value their distinctive heritage, Appalachia by one definition or another, under one name or another, will continue to make an important contribution to American life."
Another component of many of THC's works has been the key place that the U.S. government has occupied, in political economic terms especially, in most of what has happened and is happening in this country. While this may sound like a big old 'duh, and double-duh,' paradoxically, those most vociferous champions of 'the American way' surely do love to blame as much as possible on government interference. Contrariwise, today's essay shows the persistent preeminence of government intervention in the economy during the thirty odd years of TVA history from the mid 1950's to the early 1990's.
Perhaps radical economists who adopt the approach of a Baran and Sweezy, who in Monopoly Capital so evocatively argue that the Federal role and the corporate dole are one and the same, have it right. In any event, as the Federal share of economic activity approaches forty cents out of every dollar, certainly one might one to pay attention to just such a phenomenon as TVA, the creation of crisis and government together.
Another story, multi-layered, intertwined, complicated, full of so many juicy details that THC would like to convey, had we forever and a day, is thereby set to unfold. The powerhouse of empire, the electricity supply and logistical back-up for the H-bomb breadbasket, and the magnificence of the earth's oldest mountains, the ancestral home of Cherokee and more species than any other comparably sized portion of the globe, conjoin in seamless ways, even as we seek to discern how the fabric formed and where the creases are.
History always involves selection. As I have demonstrated, fully to explicate even a brief period of what has already gone by, say yesterday, fully--and by fully I mean basically placing every atom in relation to every other--would require all of the time and matter and energy that had thus far comprised the universe up until the exact 84,240 seconds that flowed by yesterday on our fair tiny rock.
Hence, an annalist must choose, and such choice will, unless he is a very iconoclastic dabbler indeed, categories of information, groupings that shape his consciousness and that he hopes to use to shape the reader's understanding. This means, fortunately for the likes of THC who so enjoys contemplating the way things happen and work, that ongoing dialog about such matters can be eternal. To avoid the 'paralysis of analysis,' folks need only say, at some point, 'OK, we're ready, and we think it happened in such and such a way.'
That popular view then becomes the accepted notion of how the past transpired, though always dialog continues, even if only in whispers. Unless debate happens, like it or not, the composer of the historical symphony may proceed on the assumption that his perspective and assessment is rational and acceptable.
Last time, the Introduction looked back to the 1930's, explaining that what inaugurates any particular 'today' is the precedent 'yesterday.' From a 'New Deal program' that truly came to pass in an experimental unfolding, TVA rose to a position of prominence in that transitional period of the first half of the 1940's, in which a final unraveling of a certain way of doing empire and preeminence came to pieces in a vast bloodletting.
Therefore, one who would comprehend TVA in the 1950's and beyond must first of all acknowledge the way that ties between the agency and the largest scale expressions of militarism--at Oak Ridge and Paducah especially, had cemented in the prior period of time. Though myriad signs of this conjunction appear for a pupil to consider, perhaps none etches such a sharp imprint as TVA Chair's lateral transfer directly to the leading role on the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), where a dominant theme in his confirmation hearings was the reputed communist infiltration under his watch back in Knoxville.
Even more pronounced than the military-industrial connections, throughout the late 1940's and early 1950's, were just such vicious attacks against suspected 'commies,' especially in organizations like TVA, that had government ties or that operated under government control. Again, readers need only recall the laughable travesty and putrid tragedy of the 'Knoxville 15,' so ably chronicled in Aaron Purcell's book, to give this point its central place.
President Eisenhower, in fact, bridled at TVA's first requests for the right to build coal-fired electric facilities. He instead called for "deep cuts" in the appropriated TVA funding that carried over from Harry Truman's final year in office, snarling in a Spring, 1953 speech in South Dakota that such "creeping socialism," a phrase he lifted from Herbert Hoover, was intolerable.
Before proceeding from this setting-of-the-stage to today's offering, one small step remains. That is to examine what THC promised when he first tapped out this series in outline form.
From King Coal in a Competitive Free-for-All to the 'Friendly Atom' to a Partial Meltdown and a Fiscal Breakdown
"The complicated emanations of public power's necessary socialistic look, and a Federal and Dixie establishment that loathed any threat that such forms might become actually democratic, guaranteed that nuclear reactors would appeal to the TVA eventually. That its electrical capacity had made the Manhattan Project possible, and continued to potentiate the nuclear arms race, also contributed to this inclination to view radioactive power favorably.
Who could have predicted a partial reactor meltdown three days prior to a debate between, on the one hand, Professor Ed Passorini and Jimbo-the-ever-humble correspondent and, on the other hand, stressed out freshly-minted DOE operatives sweating the consequences of what 21 inches of water might have yielded." With a few humble additions, THC proposes to follow precisely this formula in today's presentation.
FROM A SOOTY EMBRACE OF CARBON TO A DANDY DANCE WITH THE FRIENDLY ATOM TO 'DEREGULATED' ELECTRICITY MARKETS
To Heck With Hydro; Bring on the Coal--TVA as a Central Piece of Modern Bourgeois Strategy
In some ways, supply-and-demand thinking presents obvious benefits. For example, in relation to regional energy needs in the early 1950's, what with expanded H-bomb production and the up-and-down but trending upward curve of economic boom generally, TVA's regional energy demand, far from being glutted, was extremely tight.
Thus, House UnAmerican Activities aspersions notwithstanding, TVA wanted to create electricity from coal as the 1950's proceeded, focusing first on a site near Memphis, that was then starving for more current. Truman's minions approved this expansion of TVA's bailiwick, but Congress awaited the incoming Eisenhower Presidency.
Herbert Dixon, a long time GOP contributor and President of Mid-South utilities, howled at the possible competition on its turf. Encouraging Ike to adopt the line of taking "potshots at the agency" as socialist, he also sought administration support in fencing off non-hydroelectric electricity from the public power production realm.
Eisenhower loaned one of his fix-it fellows, Henry Dodge, to negotiate something while he continued to warn against 'pinkish' tendencies, and Eugene Yates of the Southern Company, which also detested the thought of a huge Federal competitor for its profiteering purposes, joined in a lawsuit, the Dixon-Yates case, which was the erstwhile Eisenhower Administration attitude toward the TVA for the next several years.
A banker who would become the head of the World Bank some years later, George Woods, involved himself in the situation as an agent for a financial consortium that saw tempting opportunities in the potential divvying up of TVA's assets and their sale to private interests. This was something that Eisenhower himself believed strongly was the path apropos for a capitalist country. In part, the tangle of litigation in the Dixon-Yates case sought to enforce just such a partition, per agreement.
It didn't happen however, and, though this is not the time, not yet, to go into this matter substantively, this naive assumption that the state is separate from capital as monopoly extends its tentacles into every corner of the accessible universe, is silly. In other words, what THC is hypothesizing, and will soon enough endeavor to prove, is that TVA's survival and expansion was central to the development of capitalism, absolutely opposite a 'socialist experiment' or an outdated bureaucratic backwater.
One prolific economist, Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation, has uncovered THC's newest favorite Jefferson quotation in supporting this notion of a century-long spread of the stranglehold of monopoly on all matters of State and private interest. Lynn suggests that, had early Americans listened to Jefferson, things might have turned out differently. In that case, a TVA might honorably have contributed to social democracy.
Jefferson's words speak forcefully, across two centuries. "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
Meanwhile, cut off from the capacity to muscle its way fully into steam-generated electricity, for the second time, "(i)n 1955, the TVA Board asked Congress for the power to issue its own bonds, to be paid off by TVA’s revenues. Operating surpluses would be used to pay off the U.S. Treasury’s $1 billion investment in TVA and interest on the balance. TVA would be self-financing, and the annual battles over appropriations would come to an end."
Abrogating its kowtowing to the parochial utility interests dearly beloved of the GOP, "(t)he Eisenhower administration also appeared ready to make a deal, but the private power companies in neighboring states, and congressmen backing their interests, were not. They feared that a TVA cut loose from traditional financial constraints would feel free to sell cheap power to willing customers in their own states."
Nor did self-styled populist Democrats, such as a certain Vice-President's charming father, like the idea of cutting TVA loose. This violated a principle of greater public oversight, community involvement, in a word 'democracy,' which, after all, was the name of the party.
Readers may listen in. "The prospect of cutting the budgetary lifeline was somewhat daunting to the agency’s defenders, but if TVA could not continue to meet the energy demands of the TVA region its usefulness was finished. 'In the end,' concluded Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, TVA’s staunchest backer in Congress (and father of the future vice president), 'our choice may . . . be between something not so good and no expansion.'”
To follow what is real, a pupil of the past must not only listen to ideological debate and the scheming of a set of disgruntled wealthy 'aristocrats,' but also watch what happens--what projects take shape, what forces consistently, somehow, as if by magic, emerge victorious. Late in 1955, TVA opened the world's largest coal-fired power plant, the first of many such behemoths to come. The Kingston Fossil plant, on a tributary of the Tennessee, inaugurated what Ike sniffed at as more 'socialism.' His practical perspective, like that of Gore, was that the region did need more power.
Of course, just one clear counterpoint of such ideation is that conservation was possible. Citizens and their communities need not be so profligate. Moreover, as JustMeans readers have just witnessed, progressive voices argued for such values. Moreover, on the other side of the political spectrum, some Southern Agrarians advanced quite similar arguments in favor of the earth and moderation.
In any event, though, these forces have never received more than a hint of 'established' historical recognition. And coal became TVA's bailiwick and the agency's almost insatiable demand, and it's leverage as a gigantic buyer that could demand cheap per-ton rates, arguably drove the expansion of surface mining which has pillaged Appalachia.
Legislative Changes and Legal Challenges
The charge that TVA was 'socialist' would not go away. One reason for this persistence was that at least a 'grain of truth' inhered in the argument. TVA truly represented some semblance of an 'opportunity,' even if hobbled and attenuated, at its beginning, for a socially democratic process to unfold in relation to energy.
As it in reality did evolve, moreover, it certainly represented a transfer of wealth from private hands to public purposes, which is definitely one part of social democracy--the problem with applying any standard socialist label being that the recipients of this State largesse, rather than citizens in need, were private interests like coal companies, H-bomb manufacturers, and financiers of various hues and stripes.
One upshot of such conflicts was that, in one of only a relatively small number of substantial changes to the TVA legislative charter, in 1959, Congress completely overturned the Dixon-Yates accord that the estimable Banker Mr. Woods had worked out. Instead, the modifications to the TVA charter provided what the leadership cabal under Ike's Chairman Herbert Vogel had been seeking throughout the decade, the right to seek financing on the bond markets.
In exchange, TVA would repay the government investment more rapidly. John Kennedy, now a candidate for the Presidency, considered TVA an exemplar of what his New Frontier would explore further, a rapid rise of Federal capitalization and Federal cooperation with the largest sorts of enterprises. While many citizens tend to recall the idealistic words associated with the former Navy Officer's brief and tragic Presidency, in practice, he further solidified the military industrial complex about which his predecessor had warned so sharply in his Farewell Address.
Moreover, even as legislators turned the agency loose in the marketplace, its distance from communities and individuals widened. This is a key note that Aaron Purcell makes in his volume, White Collar Radicals: TVA's Knoxville Fifteen, the New Deal, and the McCarthy Era.
He points out the real respect that early TVA staff showed to citizens in many cases, engaging and persuading instead of 'acting like the government.' He takes note of policy-making debates in which community interests and local initiatives appeared almost as prominent as those of the industrialists and moneybags who became the agency's preferred constituency. He asks onlookers to think about such things, especially in light of all of the erstwhile 'liberal' anguish over the 'failed' nature of the TVA 'experiment.'
This period, as a result of such shifts toward the marketplace, saw an equivalent shift in the litigation that TVA encountered, one strain of which THC presents in a briefly detailed way today. In 1977, James Branscome, for decades a progressive analyst of the TVA's impact and presence--whose writings prospectively acknowledge the merit of Purcell's new work--clarified the basis for this shift.
"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."
Many new complaints centered around strip mining, but that topic is not on the agenda just yet, though it will eventually come to the front of the queue. Another 'hidden' or 'externalized' cost of burning coal, obviously, one which remains a factor in the courts up until this very minute, is the air pollution that accompanies this carboniferous combustion.
James Branscome's article in American Heritage Magazine bore the title, "TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be." Though Branscome was writing prior to the final disposition of the plethora of lawsuits which eventually forced TVA to clean up its act in creating electricity from coal, he still had plenty to report The furor had been building for a long while, a citizen upwelling against a proto-governmental business that, many people felt, insisted that it could act with impunity.
"(C)ritics like Richard Ayres of the National Resources Defense Council... called TVA a “major obstruction” to the nation’s air cleanup program because of its opposition to chemical scrubbers."
While TVA's general manager Lynn "Seeber cited TVA research discrediting the Environmental Protection Agency’s insistence that the costly devices were needed to cleanse sulfur dioxide from TVA smokestacks... .(i)n 1976... the Supreme Court refused to hear TVA’s arguments that it should not have to monitor its sulfur dioxide emissions continuously."
A special edition of the Tennessee Law Review devotes its entire run to the case. When the Supreme Court denied TVA's Writ of Certiori in April of 1976, TVA nonetheless kept resisting settling its battle with the EPA.
1977 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, however, negated TVA's niggling defense that as a Federal power provider, it was exempt from enforcement. According to the Law Review editors, TVA only then began to discuss settlement with the plaintiffs and the EPA.
Facing daily fines, in all of the ten locations of twelve that were out of compliance, of $25,000 per day, and with citizen suits clearly permitted against TVA under the new amendments, the agency called off its fight and agreed to abide by the provisions of the statute. Of course, the dire predictions of Lynn Seeber and TVA's voluble Chair 'Red' Wagner, that acceding to the law would drive the region back to the stone age, proved to be absurd.
In essence, TVA tried to leverage its privileged post as a semi-permanent part of the Federal establishment to resist following laws meant to protect citizen from toxicity or other harmful effluents. Obviously, TVA's doing this was about profit, not about a desire to provide power to the public.
As James Banscome synopsized this position, "TVA’s reply to such critics has been forceful and uncompromising. A new chairman, Aubrey Wagner, argued that TVA alone of utilities in the nation has sought a 'balance point' between the 'polarized extremes' of environmental demands and ecocide. TVA’s problems, he said, exemplify on a large scale a question the nation as a whole has not answered: 'How does a people, caught between an expanding population and a shrinking resource base, meet its day-to-day needs and at the same time reasonably ensure its future?'"
Banscome details some of the litany of anger and anguish that citizens allege that the TVA engendered. "TVA has been attacked, for instance, by Al Puckett, a representative of Kentucky farmers who claimed that sulfur dioxide from the agency’s coal-fired steam plants 'defoliated' their crops and that TVA refused to recompense for damages for four years; by Corrine Whitehead, a landowner forced out of TVA’s Land Between the Lakes recreation area, who was outraged that the agency was selling lumber from the preserve to the Peabody Coal Company for mine timbers; by Mart Shepherd, a Kentucky landowner whose home used to have a safe water supply and good farm land before a TVA-contracted coal stripmine company changed all that, with Shepherd picking up the tab; by Arnold Miller, president of the United Mine Workers, who called TVA a 'public menace' for buying coal from unsafe and nonunion deep mines and for creating a 'nightmare' in Appalachia by purchasing stripmined coal; by coal operators like Cloyd McDowell of the National Independent Coal Operators Association who charged that TVA gave cost-plus contracts to its conglomerate suppliers, but bid coal down by 'predatory purchasing practices' so that small firms had to cut corners or go out of business; by newspapers like the respected Louisville Courier Journal, which asked editorially, 'Is the TVA Just Another Power Firm?' and answered close to an affirmative; by Tennessee Congressman Joe L. Evins, who claimed that TVA had not done anything about 'price gouging' by its coal suppliers; and, finally, by Mrs. Betty Higginbotham of Cleveland, Tennessee, a senior citizen who collected over fifteen thousand signatures on a petition protesting TVA power-rate increases."
Banscome's title, if THC's reading of what the 1930's were like, is quite apt. "It Ain't What It Used to Be." Chairman Wagner, an engineer who rose through the ranks, "ha(d) few apologies for TVA’s programs. 'TVA views electricity as a critical catalyst for bringing about a better quality of life for the people. … We believe in the usefulness of electric power not to stimulate growth for growth’s sake, but because we know what it has done and what it can do to improve the lives of people everywhere.' TVA’s resistance to strong strip-mine control, air-pollution regulation, coal-mine health and safety laws, and other concerns pressed by its critics has been based on the 'balance' theory, providing 'the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the longest time.'"
One key to a community critique of such a high-minded defense of caustic toxicity, which many who promulgate nuclear electricity today might utilize, in one form or other, is that folks on the receiving end must have sayso, input, and, in some cases, veto power. Such a citizen might also insist that community input into such matters at the policy level must at some juncture be the modus operandi which society employs. Most pertinent in the particular case at hand, such a one might note that even the government ought to follow the law, whether the underlying cause of action is a civil, criminal, employment, or environmental statute.
Environmentalists generally also began more regularly to assail the actions of TVA. With the recognition of the degradation caused by industrial attempts to maximize profits and 'externalize' costs, in the days following the first Earth Day and just prior to the emergence of the first Environmental Justice advocates, many more legal actions against TVA emanated from the grassroots and frpm non-profit eco-defenders. Sometimes, as in the case of Save Our Cumberland Mountains, community and NGO became one, similarly as has transpired in the case of, among others, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
Perhaps the most famous environmental law case ever, 'when a minnow stopped a dam,' involved the possible extinction of a species of fish, the snail darter, unknown when the Tellico Dam's planning began. Today, THC only gives the briefest precis of this situation, inasmuch as he intends to create a complete article that centers on this case in a month or so.
District Court and Appeals Court decisions in this matter remain among the most cited of such case-law. The Supreme Court's ruling, however, in Hill v. TVA has become a benchmark. Hiram G. Hill, the Tennessee Audubon Society, and the Association of Southeast Biologists, spent eight years in the courts, on this matter, three years under the National Environmental Policy Act and five years under the Endangered Species Act.
At the outset of its ruling the justices said, "For the third time in five years we are called upon to resolve a dispute between environmentalists and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) over the legality of the Tellico Dam and Reservoir Project. The issue on appeal in this instance is the propriety of the district court's denial of Appellants' request for a permanent injunction to prevent TVA from imminently closing the Tellico Dam. Appellants allege that the resulting reservoir will flood the only recognized habitat of the snail darter, a rare protected species of river-dwelling fish, thereby jeopardizing its continued survival, in violation of §§ 7 and 9 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973."
And whatever other socioeconomic forces may have been in play, a fish did indeed prevail against a dam. Some semblance of what happened is that respect for a unique life form overturned a highly profitable enterprise of development. For now, this summation will do, though a much more thorough investigation is on the horizon.
While a complete legislative history of the TVA's original statute would provide all sorts of interesting twists and turns, and a fuller examination of the agency's 'day-in-court,' again and again and again, would give readers a much larger understanding of the social conflicts engendered by TVA, for THC's purposes now, these introductory brushstrokes will do. Now that TVA had become a utility, it merited less attention from the attacking bourgeoisie.
Now that TVA had become a utility, even less responsive to communities, more and more individuals and organizations rose up against it. Meanwhile, redolent of David Lilienthal's transfer from the Chairmanship of the TVA to the leading position at the AEC in 1947, TVA was preparing to put into action the nuclear highway in America.
A Public Laboratory for 'Too Cheap to Meter,' a Partial Meltdown and a Total Disaster, Cleaning up the Balance Sheet to Get Rid of Nukes
While the nation's first commercial nuclear reactor opened in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 1958, and the Hanford Plutonium production reactors had produced electricity since the mid-1940's, as the 1960's ticked off the cosmic clock, 'atoms for peace' was still a relatively new public relations gesture. But JFK believed in nukes; they represented the sort of duality which he believed operated dialectically, perhaps much to the detriment of the nation's health and finances.
In any case, as a recent TVA regional website recalled, "In the 1960s, TVA began building the nation's largest system of nuclear power plants. It still operates four of them; several others were started, then scrapped in the 1980s at huge expense. Some reactors were hastily built, then idled for years for costly repairs because TVA couldn't prove they were safe."
Though these authors argue that the agency should "return to its roots," TVA may have represented a way, in this case, to finesse marketplace uncertainties, which were still highly resistant to nukes, as they remain to this day. In acting to facilitate nukes, however, TVA was not making longterm vision from the grassroots operational.
Aubrey ('Red') Wagner, Kennedy's appointment to head the TVA, lent his ear to whoever asked. But then he did what he wanted, arguably what the government had front loaded for various reasons. Anyhow, according to a TVA chronicle, "Around 1965, he also developed an interest in another kind of power."
Come what may, "Wagner was determined to lead TVA into the nuclear age. He proposed the construction of 14 nuclear power plants in the Valley, and succeeded in building Browns Ferry and Sequoyah. Construction on Browns Ferry, TVA’s first nuclear plant, began in 1966. When it went online in 1974, the facility was the largest nuclear plant in the world, and it became the first to generate more than a billion watts of power."
Many citizens doubted the entire process. "Again, opposition to the new plants was strong in some quarters. Wagner listened to his opponents, but always made it sound like a simple decision: 'I saw nuclear as a means of getting continuing power, at lower cost, with less harm to the environment."
Thus, an observer might posit that, in the early optimistic hay-days of nuclear reactors, TVA stood for the future, for progress, for masterful technology over even a consideration of more minimalist or populist approaches. I will argue very strongly, and at length, against such a view in upcoming pieces about the nuclear process in Georgia, and in the final article of this series.
Even bending over backward to give the benefit of the doubt, however, after Sequoyah went 50% over budget and took two years longer than anticipated to build, Brown's Ferry doubled construction estimates, both in time and cost: instead of four years, eight; instead of $250 million dollars, half a billion, a rational observer would have to wonder whether some sort of pattern--either of oblivion or deception--were operative.
Thus, TVA's 'leadership' in the nuclear arena came at a cost; in the ten years after it broke ground on the first reactor site, electricity rates increased five times. And rather than being able to ascribe these cost gyrations to a learning curve, they seemed to worsen as the decade of oil shocks and stagflation yielded their forty-years-hence version of the meltdown dripping its dregs around us now.
The Multinational Monitor described the situation crisply. "In what became a widely quoted statement, Harvard Business School Professor LC. Bupp wrote in 1978, 'Systematic confusion of expectation with fact, of hope with reality, has been the most characteristic feature of the entire 30-year effort to develop nuclear power. ... The distinction between empirically supported fact and expectation was blurred from the beginning in the discussion of nuclear power economics.... [What was missing... was independent analysis of actual cost experience.'"
While economic contradictions and social restiveness were problems that TVA or any other similar bureaucracy must expect, and find a routine mechanism that permits it to surmount such difficulties, what happened at Brown's Ferry less than a year after it opened transpired as a comic nightmare. The cartoonish perambulations of buffoons worthy of a Stan Laurel or an Oliver Hardy seem to have been in play, though, one can't know if one wasn't there, perhaps things merely went awry as a result of random bad fortune; then again, random bad fortune is randomly inevitable, so at some level, one may posit that nuclear electricity is inherently, murderously, buffoonish.
A recent New York Times article, discussing the five billion dollars that TVA spent, beginning in the new Century, to reopen this long closed plant, described the earlier scene. "In March of the following year, an electrician was using a candle in a room full of cables(and flammable sealant), under the control room, to look for air leaks, a procedure that the authority described as normal. He set a fire that burned for hours and disabled the reactor’s emergency core cooling system."
Let's see: looking for air leaks, as in oxygen mixed with other gases, with a candle, around highly flammable materials in a nuclear reactor. Hmmmmm. And all of this wiring interconnected and in command of all safety systems. Here, no doubt, from the defense in depth requirements enacted thereafter, an onlooker can account for some of the cost increases that nuclear has undergone--money well spent, unless one wants to write off a few thousand immediate fatalities, incalculable cancers in the decades that follow, and a political, social, and economic nightmare of World Trade Center proportions times a multiplier.
James Banscome offers a chilling juxtaposition here, between a TVA staffer's perspective and an outside view. "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."
An understatement? "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."
The NYT piece from 2007 adds, "The reactor reopened, but 10 years later, in March 1985, the T.V.A. shut all three of the reactors on the site because of numerous safety problems."
This one incident could indeed appear as "hard luck," as THC's soccer mates would intone if this bumbler missed a shot on goal. But Banscome warns against such a lighthearted view, from the vantage point of 1977. "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."
As if that near-cataclysm, and the grotesque arrogance of the response to it, weren't enough, just a few short years later, as the film "The China Syndrome" entered the second week of its theater run, a similar charade on the part of the authorities followed the even more serious partial meltdown and apparent breech of the containment building at Three Mile Island. The impact of this event on TVA was economic.
Despite its own misfortunes, it had proceeded on the assumption of completing a large portion of 'Red' Wagner's ambitious fulfillment of somebody's nuclear agenda. "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."
Yet cost overruns kept getting worse, even as the building continued. "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."
Fortune Magazine, in a blaring headline, "Nuclear Scandal Shakes TVA," found reason to view the situation as more than mere gross mistakes." "With $15 billion in nongenerating power plants, the Tennessee Valley Authority was in a jam. So it hired a hotshot admiral from the nuclear Navy and gave him an army of engineers to make the plants work. Result: TVA is worse off than it was before. The most ambitious nuclear power program in the U.S. is in danger of becoming its most expensive scrap heap. Of the nine nuclear power reactors built by the Tennessee Valley Authority at a cost of $15 billion, not a single one is operating. Now a plan to fix them has careened wildly off course. A former admiral in the U.S. Navy, hired to get the nuclear program running, is charged by government officials with conflict of interest and violation of federal pay guidelines, while others raise questions of cronyism and bad judgment."
This double-whammy of Brown's Ferry and TMI had multiple economic impacts, which simply spiraled toward doom. In this context, President Jimmy Carter sent S. David Freeman into the fray as the new TVA Chairman. His virulent opposition to nuclear electricity, for reasons of both cost and safety, dates from this period.
"Freeman, now an outspoken opponent of nuclear energy, says it was the Tennessee Valley’s businesspeople, frustrated with debt-related rate hikes, who finally gave him the leverage to cease TVA’s nuclear construction.' It took a lot of political courage to shut down those plants with those thousands of construction workers put out of a job, and I’m very proud that we had the integrity to do it,' he says. 'But if we hadn’t, TVA would be broke now.' In fact, numerous analyses—ranging from the halls of academia to the General Accounting Office—have depicted the utility as perilously close to 'broke.' As recently as four years ago, economists Dennis Logue and Paul MacAvoy assessed TVA’s balance sheets through fiscal year 2000 and concluded that if TVA were a private utility, answerable to stockholders, it would be considered 'virtually insolvent.'"
Freeman himself recalls that period in the Preface to Dr. Arjun Makhijani's Carbon Free & Nuclear Free. "When President Carter appointed me to the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and then promoted me to be the Chairman, the country was in the midst of a profound change in its energy consumption patterns. Economic growth had resumed, but energy growth had not. The Zero Energy Growth scenario that the then-President of Mobil Oil Company, William Tavoulareas, had been so critical about (he was on our Board of Advisors) was actually being realized in practice. But TVA had its head in the sand; it was building 14 nuclear reactors at once, as if 1973 had been just another normal year. It was business-as-usual in the worst way."
Arjun Makhijani provided the technical analysis and intellectual firepower that permitted an airtight case for closing TVA's glut of radioactive water boilers. "Typically, he took a look at the big picture of TVA’s supply and demand first. He wrote a report whose gist was that unless TVA cancelled at least eight reactors (he actually named the ones), an energy efficiency program would be counterproductive."
The only way that nukes made sense was if a scenario was possible to induce as much wastefulness and overuse of energy as possible. Dr. Makhijani and Chairman Freeman, despite the imprecations of the nuclear genies, decided that such a course constituted criminal insanity, and TVA shed those eight reactors. Of course, the agency operate still in the shadow of that debt.
The legacy of nuclear energy represents, to THC and others, the most catastrophic aspect of TVA's devolutionary spin. Unfortunately, it is a downward trend toward doom that is operative as my fingers generate this text.
The 1982 Knoxville World's Fair emphasized TVA's purported energy leadership. Its full name showed this clearly--"Energy Runs the World." E.J. Kahn, however, a 'far-flung' correspondent for New Yorker, found the show "generally unstimulating," a condescending dismissal that one might ascribe to his bad luck in coming from the seat of the Yankee empire.
On the other hand, everything in his review suggests a public relations show in which content propagates a certain propaganda line, and not the sort of open-ended and creative nexus of investigation and wonder which is the necessary underpinning for a successful endeavor of a world's fair sort. President Reagan extolled Republicans and nukes, but "he didn't even bring the Secretary of Energy with him."
A shiny, expensive surface; a bright and insistent message; little that is fun or stimulating--my, oh my, too bad for the boatload of cousins who depend on TVA, unless they can collect themselves and turn the ship of state around, it sounds a lot like the nuclear power snow job that TVA is feeding its customers still.
Onward to the Great Deregulated Future
Though WWII and anti-communist reaction blocked further development of the social innovation and political progressiveness that TVA seemed ready to engender in the 1930's, the events and developments of the decades following McCarthy completely buried any realistic potential for a bottom-up, democratic approach to energy. The militarism and anti-communism of the 1940's and 50's derailed progressives, sending some who admitted, or refused to submit to interrogation about, being communists to prison. National Security justified almost any depredation.
At the same time, echoes resounded, or memories remained, of what the promise of TVA had been. Until the seemingly endless list of causes of action--coal and nuclear and bureaucracy and corruption and expense--so thoroughly discredited any hope of reform that people simply gave up, sparks of hope for a return to a better pathway continued to show up now and again.
Some people's optimism is impossible to kill. THC still envisions a public power colossus that truly stands for what people themselves want and need. This sense of memory and possibility is one reason that a certain sourness about TVA was still prevalent among utilities and those reactionaries and proto-fascists who called themselves conservative.
To these sorts of citizens, for whom social security is tantamount to Stalinism, all vicissitudes of public power, especially public electric power--with the liberating potentiation there available--cause them and their reactionary corporate and political allies to sputter and cavil much more vociferously than did Eisenhower, back in 1953. As this period ended, on the cusp of the First Gulf War and the 'productive' deployment of some of the 'waste' uranium that TVA juice had so long produced, these 'Business-as-Usual Imperialists' waited in the wings, seeking a final evisceration of TVA, and elevation of the 'market' that was soon enough to deliver the world that we now inhabit.
The experience of TVA offers appealing evidence for 'structuralist' nostrums, for example, about bureaucracy's inability to work flexibly with community. The idea that certain political forms prohibit, or at least severely inhibit, certain social expressions looks like an apt depiction of TVA's experience during these decades. Unfortunately, in the wider context that begins during the period prior to the agency's existence and takes into account the concomitant development of the utility industry, such a tidy assessment won't wash.
The history of the TVA during this period does provide insight, however, into several spheres that should interest those who hope to achieve sustainable business. These would include, for example, the intersection between public policy and private plans for maximizing profits from resource extraction; the way that courts did, and did not, provide relief for citizens who wanted stricter standards of stewardship; the nature of the price and political economy of nuclear power; and on and on.
This TVA history is especially mete to consider inasmuch as the agency's announced intention is to become the cutting edge of the vaunted 'nuclear renaissance' that Barack-the-Magnificent inherited from Bill Clinton's and George Bush's administration. Moreover, the roots of TVA--as a community partner and a community booster, as opposed to a repository of 'expertise' that already knows all the answers--is completely applicable to what various present situations demand if a democratic and equitable set of policy outcomes are to result.
Perhaps the most critical comprehension that TVA's history makes accessible is the recognition that the surface of things will never proffer the level of evidence and depth of grasp necessary to apply past lessons as models or filters for contemplating current options. Whether the issue is bureaucratic interfaces with community leadership, siting concerns for industrial power reactors, applicability of renewable energy technologies for grid connection, or something else altogether, only a deeper delving of the historical record has any hope of churning up useful data or ideas for those confronting present-day conundrums.
Even though THC's efforts here are minimally enriched, they do probe beneath the topmost layer of past reality. Insodoing, along with the facts offered above, they make very dubious any glib notion that nuclear power will lead to anywhere except to bankruptcy in the Tennessee Valley. Moreover, as previous and future articles develop at some length, the 'Nuclear Fool Cycle' has horrific effects along every link in its lethal chain, leaving out of the equation completely the lack of waste solutions.
A further conclusion about this thirty five years of TVA growth is that it represents a potent manifestation of a modern worldwide phenomenon, the intersection of National Government and regional development authorities that implement ongoing economic policies, on the one hand, and serve as a conduit for political priorities and business operations, on the other hand. One consultant produced a lengthy study in this regard that discussed similarities with Soviet regional agencies.
Finally, all tolled, the annals of the TVA illustrate that the varied intersecting elements of TVA development, at least after the initial period that was relatively friendly to 'radicals,' served to impede, or even preclude, fair or easy community access to decision-making, input, or engagement. For advocates of 'business better,' this discovery must be discomfiting. Exactly the opposite is in fact essential for a possibility of sustainable business, renewable energy, or other policies that fit with a sunnier conception of capitalism than that which the present scene at TVA makes manifest.
Just what to do with historical vision, with the inevitably partial and generally uncertain knowledge of the past, is not obvious. However, one may start with the conception that the present does in fact result from the past, that every historical eventuality is in fact a process that connects events even longer gone and more recent occurrences up to the present moment.
Then, for instance, an intrepid JustMeans reader, nodding and agreeing that 'yes, that sounds pretty darned reasonable,' might go a step further. He might recall that he has his own personal goals and priorities regarding 'business better;' or she might remember that she had hoped to see further support for feed-in-tarriffs during this legislative session in California or Quebec or Qatar. In other words each reader can acknowledge a personal commitment to something.
Having done as much as this, then the rich stew of people and action and technology and money and all of that stuff from the past becomes potentially useful. This is so because then, too, people and communities and even bureaucrats and politicians expressed hopes for better business forms--analysts can measure the results. This is so because citizens then did hope for specific progressive policy outcomes--regarding conservation, environmental stewardship, and so on--and sought to achieve these outcomes in specific ways, like law suits and lobbying and so forth--once again an onlooker can see how things worked out.
And that's just the most obvious surface levels of utility. The creative ideas, the constructive ways of problem solving, perspectives about how and why relationships develop as they do, the entire recorded archive that the past dumps on the present, and its organized and hypothesized expressions in the work of history, all become a huge resource file for how we might go about doing things now, if we are willing to dig into the loam laid down by the root struggles from which all of us, and all that is, have emanated.
THC has frequently turned to a fellow radical, such as Howard Zinn, to impel readers to agree to pay attention. Such views, that 'history remains a weapon' in the struggle for liberation and power, certainly appeal to THC.
But much more mainstream sorts, such as the American Historical Association essayist Peter Stern also offer sage advice about this necessity. He writes, "People live in the present. They plan for and worry about the future. History, however, is the study of the past. ...In a society that quite correctly expects education to serve useful purposes, the functions of history can seem more difficult to define than those of engineering or medicine. History is in fact very useful, actually indispensable, but the products of historical study are less tangible, sometimes less immediate, than those that stem from some other disciplines....such as engineering or medicine."
THC might add, for his readers to affirm, "or business or marketing or something similar." Stern provides eight or nine strong reasons to do as he, and this writer, command. However, in one of his rationale, he groups three benefits that seem especially useful, at least to THC. The are as follows: "The Ability to Assess Evidence; The Ability to Assess Conflicting Interpretations; Experience in Assessing Past Examples of Change." This is strong mojo, for those willing to examine the matter.
Before fading away from this page, THC has one more bon mot to offer in this regard. Quite a number of paragraphs ago, this text asserted accurately that any telling of a tale, such as a his-story or a her-story or an our-story that we compartmentalize as 'history' absolutely requires selection. This necessity to choose comprises another way of characterizing what Professor Stern offers to readers. If folks will look around for different ways of spinning the yarn of the past, inevitably they will come across useful narratives, helpful iterations, and compelling testimony to how things can improve.
One of the most potent hindrances to this type of engagement, and hence this kind of benefit, is the ideological prejudice against social democracy, socialism, Marxism, communism, radicalism, etc. This is especially pertinent in regard to reporting the past of the TVA because, from the outset, literally from the vote on the enabling legislation, and continuing to a crescendo early in the period under consideration, and ongoing to this second, as these words trip off THC's fingers, the 'great evasion' keeps operating its insidious reactionary black magic.
Perhaps most JustMeans readers have inured themselves to such intellectual evils. Then again, this is the USA, and Barack-the-Magnificent, an imperial centrist in the mode of Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon, suffers because flacks label him 'red' in his inclinations. 'A word to the wise is sufficient,' my granny was wont to say, wagging her West Virginia finger in my direction. Here's the word: 'Red-baiting,' in any of its diverse forms, dooms social progress.
A final way station before exiting can only appear briefly, although this complex issue of empire and national power has frequently shown up in these pages before. And no matter how one weaves the thread of TVA history into a recognizably accurate fabric, the Tennessee Valley Authority as an institution, and its choices as an organization, and its agency relationship with the Federal Government all connect it inexorably to the most profound embodiment of imperial purview and intention.
From the Manhattan Project ties revealed in the previous part of this series to Ken Bergeron's Tritium on Ice, mentioned above, obvious details of this intertwining show up repeatedly. Moreover, in its present mania to 'clean up its act' by being the tip of Obama's nuclear spear, it so transparently puts itself in the position of being the empire's creature that any interpretation of TVA that leaves this element out must be deficient.
Of course, ironically or tragically, depending on how one views such things, this imperial empowerment must doom the enterprise that is the United States of America. And that, dear readers, is where all citizens have an invitation to the casting call of this action-packed psychological thriller. To learn some useful lines, and take some compelling steps as we prance across the stage, a prospective actor might recall that THC's work is in the nature of a book bag, full of texts that might help in just such a drama as this, if one were to study and use them.
In any event, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Even Dwight David Eisenhower, bless his conservative soul, provides support for such views. Where he says bomber, one might fill in "nuclear reactor" and multiply by ten or "hydrogen bomb" and divide by ten. Things, folks, do in fact come down to choices, even if we pretend as if we're not responsible, even though we also want to pretend that we live in a democracy.
"'This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.'" Which side are we on? Equally important, how do we get TVA and the Fed on the same page?