Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > TVA Report Remarkable

It is probably the most remarkable annual report ever issued by a utility. The fact that the utility is the Tennessee Valley Authority–a government cor­poration–makes it no less remarkable given the behavior that the TVA until recently has exhibited which is similar to profit-making private utilities.

The TVA report for 1979 reflects the belief of the new chairman S. David Freeman that the giant utility “must get back to its roots and to the people.” To symbolize that decision, the report’s cover is a color picture of a poor boy in front of his tiny house not far from TVA’s offices in Knoxville. The first chapter opens with a story about an elderly woman, Martha Collins, paying a $192.88 monthly electric bill with a $219 Social Security check. Then, accompanied by appropriate pictures of housing poverty, the following pages explain the availability of free energy surveys and interest-free loans for reducing energy waste.

The chapter on nuclear power opens with a full-page picture of a leading regional opponent of nuclear power John Thomas. The TVA has several nuclear power plants and more on the drawing board.

The toxic chemical tragedy is the symbol of a chapter on the environment titled “Triana (Alabama)–A Town With DDT In Its Blood.” Other sections deal with agriculture, land use, recreation and economic development.

In a recent letter to me, Freeman said:

“You know the TVA agrees wholeheartedly that conservation and solar energy are alternatives to nuclear power. We’re installing 12,000 solar water heaters on houses in the Valley, helping put passive and modular solar homes on the market and running a conservation program that is unmatched anywhere. I recently participated in TVA’s 200,000th home energy audit, and we have made about 80,000 interest free loans to consumers for attic insulation.

“A recent study of the first 27,000 homes insulated under our program shows annual savings of 50.5 million kilowatt hours. This insulation is providing ‘generating capacity’ at a cost of $170 per kilowatt, compared to more than $1,000 per installed kilowatt hour nuclear plants under construction.”

Yet in several speeches, Freeman has come out for nuclear power, always cautioning to emphasize the need for sharply improved safety practices. He says by 1990 the TVA will have seven working nuclear plants and more under construction. He adds that “available evidence is that the risks of nuclear are no greater than those of coal” and that “new coal-fired power plants are so expensive, probably even more expensive than nuclear plants.”
Statements like these, coming from an energy specialist who should know better, lend a disquieting aspect to Freeman’s policies. The recurring am­bivalence of Freeman’s past careers surfaces once again. Only this time it could be his strong desire not to offend powerful members of Congress and keep his options open for other government service.

Certainly, his failure to take a leadership stand against Tellico Dam, an economic boondoggle denounced by his president’s chief economic advisor, among others, is troubling. Instead, he and his annual report made it appear that once the endangered species problem was averted, 16,000 acres of prime farm land could be inundated for comparatively trivial or frivolous benefits.

Such reluctance to lead boldly when powerful vested interests may be confronted contributes to Freeman’s misguided observations on nuclear power. Does he really believe that the trade-off is either coal or nuclear when his own data on energy conservation potential show a quantitative significance that can make the trade-off energy efficiency vs. nuclear power?

Does he really believe that the available technology makes coal as risky as nuclear? Coal mine hazards
and pollution are far more susceptible to ready technology than the sabotage, earthquake and ac­cident potential of nuclear plants containing more than 1,000 times the radioactive material of the Hiroshima bomb fallout.

Unlike coal, nuclear power cannot be adequately insured in the private market and it requires limited liability by law to place most of the financial risk of a catastrophe on the victims. Unlike coal, nuclear materials can be stolen and made into bombs. Unlike coal, a nuclear plant disaster can make an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable. Unlike coal, every nuclear plant and vehicle materials are national security risks. Unlike coal, nuclear power requires an elaborate evacuation plan for people living 10 miles from the plant and 50 miles or more if we adopt the criteria of some physicists.

As for comparative costs of nuclear power and coal, Freeman’s view is contradicted both by Prof. Irwin Bupp of Harvard and economist Charles Kolmanoff. Then there are the added costs of decommissioning nuclear plants after 30 years of operation, longer shut down times after a mishap and the awesome, costly problem of storing deadly radioactive wastes for thousands of years.

As bad a polluter as is coal (until solar takes over), nuclear is without peer for what it irrevocably can do to America and future generations. Unlike coal, nuclear power has only one bite of the apple–one major disaster–and, as pro-nuclear Sen. John Pastore, D-R.I., once said, “The whole kit and kaboodle will go.”

Mr. Freeman, it is time for you to speak what you really know.