Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

TVA plans to run its largest nuclear plant for 30 more years

In 2016, the Tennessee Valley Authority opened the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. It is the youngest nuclear plant in the U.S.
In 2016, the Tennessee Valley Authority opened the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant. It is the youngest nuclear plant in the U.S.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is planning to extend the lifespan of its largest nuclear plant by two decades – again.

Last week, the TVA Board voted to give CEO Jeff Lyash the power to begin the years-long process of extending operation of the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant from 60 to 80 years.

“Our recommendation to delegate the authority provides the CEO with the authority to responsibly make the decisions based on evolving factors,” said Jeff Smith, a TVA board member and chair of the Operations and Nuclear Oversight Committee.

The Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant opened in Alabama in 1974. It has three nuclear reactors and produces about a tenth of TVA’s electricity with about 3.4 gigawatts of generating capacity – making it the second most powerful nuclear plant in the nation.

The plant was originally scheduled to run for 40 years, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the licenses for the three reactors to 60 years in 2006.

In 2019, TVA finished a nearly $500 million upgrade to the Browns Ferry site. Most of the original materials have been replaced, according to CEO Lyash.

The federally-determined lifespan is “not the design life of the plant at all,” Lyash said during the recent board meeting.

Unprecedented territory for nuclear

The Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is one of the oldest plants in the U.S. still in use today. The oldest operating nuclear reactor, Nine Mile Point unit in New York, began operation just a few years before TVA in 1969, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The nuclear industry has been experiencing pressure to maintain the carbon-free source of power amidst the climate crisis, and multiple utilities are considering 80-year lifespans for their nuclear plants.

Some utilities are even preparing for new nuclear capacity. TVA, for example, has been investing in small modular reactors for years and even obtained the nation’s first early site permit for a potential buildout in 2019.

TVA has not made a decision about the Browns Ferry plant yet, but Lyash will now be able to submit the license renewal application and initiate the related actions.

“We’re not prejudicing TVA’s ultimate selection on an alternative,” Smith said, when explaining the motive behind the board’s action. “It’s just simply trying to get the CEO set up.”

This isn’t the first time the Trump-appointed board members have given away decision-making power. The CEO is also making the decision about whether to build a new gas plant at the Cumberland Fossil Plant site in Stewart County – a plan that has been objected to by Nashville’s mayor, the Nashville Electric Service board, and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.