Nuclear Power Advocates and Enviro Activists Make Cases For Journalists

  • Albert Roddy, a consultant for Tennessee Valley Authority, in the Sequoyah nuclear plant operation simulation room. Photo: J.S. Jordan

While horrific images and reports of the fallout from Fukushima's two-plus-year-old nuclear reactor meltdown continued to emerge this week, the Tennessee Valley Authority gave journalists a tour of the Sequoyah nuclear power plant in Chattanooga.

On Thursday, TVA contractors, media reps, and members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission spoke to about 15 reporters gathered for a tour as part of the 23rd annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. The Tenessee Valley Authority(TVA) provides electricity for 9 million people in parts of seven southeastern states and operates three nuclear plants. A drop in electric demand has slowed development of a fourth plant. TVA is a corporation owned by the U.S. government. 

Standing in a room full of old-school gauges and levers used for training plant operators, reporter Roger Witherspoon asked whether in an emergency, two operators would have to run around flipping levers to shut down reactors, TVA retiree and contractor Albert Roddy, said, "yes." But, Roddy added, that while the equipment looks dated, it's actually "very safe."

Roddy surprised some of the journalists by stating that plant operators work 12-hour shifts standing up.  These workers, he said, need to pass a rigorous two-year training before manning the controls.  They do not, however, have to have college degrees.  Many operators were previously in nuclear work in the Navy, and most are men. 

The TVA team repeatedly described nuclear as an important piece of a carbon-free future.  TVA also operates hydroelectric dams along the Tennessee River, and offers incentives for individual or business solar construction.

Three people well-known to the TVA for speaking out against the nuclear operation for reasons ranging from environmental to worker safety also spoke to journalists.

Stephen A. Smith, director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said that while in some places, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is capturing a lot of criticism for environmental problems, "compared to the risk of coal or nuclear, we would take natural gas any day of the week." 

He listed his concerns about the plant by describing what he called the "four Ws."

Water, Smith said, gets extremely hot in the Tennessee River, which is used for cooling in the nuclear power process. The other "Ws" he pointed out in opposition to the plant included the unresolved issue of what to do with waste. He added that nuclear is not an option for global climate change because some countries are too unstable to deal with with nuclear materials that could be used for weapons.

And finally, Smith said, "Wall Street won't invest" in the plants because of their high cost.