Nuclear power option still alive at TVA despite Phipps Bend debacle

The base of what was to be a cooling tower for the Phipps Bend nuclear plant remains at the site in Surgoinsville. Photo illustration by David Grace.


SURGOINSVILLE — Politicians often tout nuclear power generation as a more reliable — and less costly — future solution to America’s energy woes, but that idea met an expensive death here in 1981.

The region’s top Republican lawmaker at the time wasn’t happy about it.

Lack of community support was not the reason the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Phipps Bend nuclear plant project was mothballed more than 25 years ago by the TVA Board of Directors, according to Times-News archives and documents put together by the late U.S. Rep. James H. “Jimmy” Quillen and stored at the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.

Today, interest in nuclear power remains high, set against the background of TVA’s decision to enact a 20 percent increase in wholesale power rates due to high fuel costs and a prolonged drought that has sharply reduced its ability to generate cheaper hydroelectric power.

But almost 30 years ago, even after the much-publicized Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident in 1979, Northeast Tennessee and Hawkins County were bullish on nuclear power at Phipps Bend.

The reason was simple: Jobs.

At its peak, about 3,000 workers were assembling the Phipps Bend nuclear plant, a sprawling site that was supposed to include two nuclear reactors. TVA had anywhere from $775 million to $1.5 billion invested in the location, according to TVA annual reports and Quillen’s documents. Electricity generated from Phipps Bend was expected to move across TVA’s entire power grid.

Then a combination of negative economic factors pinched TVA, agency spokesman Gil Francis said.

“At the time we planned for these nuclear units, there was rising power demand, ... it was really going off the charts, and we planned to meet that demand by building nuclear units,” he explained. “Then the demand dropped, ... there was a lot of aluminum production in the South, those plants closed down, ... demand started to decline, and the cost of the nuclear plants increased dramatically.”

The beginning of the end for Phipps Bend’s development as a nuclear plant came in August 1981. More than 100 people crowded a conference room at TVA’s west tower in Knoxville as the TVA board unanimously agreed to defer work on Phipps Bend and slow down work on three other nuclear units. About 40 Hawkins County residents were at the meeting, with many of them wearing yellow arm bows to signify they were “hostages” to TVA.

TVA Manager Bill Willis showed the board charts and graphs detailing how the decision for deferral occurred. The main considerations were estimated lower power requirement loads for the 1980s, and a revision of regional economic growth rates that previously showed the economy growing faster from 1973 to 1979 than earlier estimates had indicated.

Quillen was not at the meeting, but his longtime political ally, Jimmy Miller, was there to read his statement to the TVA board.

“TVA used to have a great name here in the valley,” Miller said in Quillen’s statement, which met loud applause. “Historically, TVA has been a leader in this nation ... has showed everyone else how it is to be done. Now you are on the verge of taking a bold step backward.”

Quillen warned TVA that a shutdown at Phipps Bend would have a “devastating impact” and limit future development in a region that depends on TVA power “like a newborn baby depends on mother’s milk.”

With the plant site more than 40 percent complete, worker layoffs began the following year. TVA then made an offer to assist Hawkins County in economic development.

Years afterward, the Phipps Bend Joint Venture, an economic development effort steered by Kingsport and Hawkins County officials, turned the plant site into an industrial park that now employs about 1,800 people in more than a dozen businesses.

But there are still thoughts about what might have been.

“I think had (the nuclear plant) been built, it would have been a tremendous economic boost to Hawkins County,” Hawkins County industry recruiter Lynn Lawson said of Phipps Bend.

With Phipps Bend out of the power picture, about 30 percent of TVA’s power supply now comes from its three nuclear plants: Browns Ferry, near Athens, Ala.; Sequoyah, in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and Watts Bar, near Spring City, Tenn.

TVA insists nuclear power will be part of its energy future. The agency is seeking a combined construction and operating license to restart nuclear units in Bellefonte, Ala., Francis said.

But the earliest projected time the Bellefonte units could be on line is 2017, according to TVA.

Francis said TVA continues to review all other energy generation options.

“We know that our power demand is growing at about two percent a year,” he added. “We’re looking at every (power source) that’s out there — some renewables, some coal technology. ... We continue to look at coal but there are still some issues on emissions with coal and changing regulations on air compliance. ... In our region, we don’t have as much of a resource in solar and wind as you would have in the desert Southwest and Midwest.”

Nuclear power, meanwhile, is still being talked up by politicians, both elected and hopeful.

“I think in my lifetime nuclear power may be the biggest power used for automobiles,” U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in a recent Times-News Editorial Board meeting. “I envision a day when we are actually plugging in our vehicles at night and charging them up with base load power being produced by nuclear (power plants). ... Nissan announced down in Middle Tennessee that they are building an all-electric vehicle. Nuclear has got to be a big part of our future.”

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