TVA is in hot-water dispute

Permit to discharge into Tennessee River expired two years ago

Staff Writer

TVA releases billions of gallons of heated water into the Tennessee River each year, and the electricity-producer is on a path to release more, but the state-issued permit that allows the agency's Watts Bar nuclear plant to dump warmed water back into the river expired two years ago.

TVA has asked the state to renew the plant's permit, but state environmental officials said last week they want more information about the water temperature there before they sign off on it.

Water that is too hot could hurt the fish and other aquatic life in the river.

Watts Bar, which is between Knoxville and Chattanooga, is where TVA plans to build another nuclear reactor. The one unit already in operation there sucks in 150,000 gallons of river water a minute, on average.

Agency officials insist that the Tennessee River can provide more electricity without overly warming or sullying the water, but environmentalists question going further without more information.

"They're using documents in their application and numbers that are from 1993," said activist Ann Harris, a national committeewoman with the Sierra Club and a former TVA employee.

Jack Bailey, TVA's vice president of nuclear generation development, said that the big picture has been considered and that dams and technology help maintain a balance.

"It's a trade-off on the thermal impact on the river and water use," he said.

Adjustments are made as needed, and releases at dams occur from low down in lakes, where the water is colder, Bailey said. That water dilutes the releases from the nuclear plants.

Also, the cooling towers at Watts Bar and some other plants dissipate heat, and sometimes water put back in the river is cooler than what was removed, he said.

'We are in compliance'

The expired permit does not mean anything is wrong, said John Moulton, a TVA spokesman.

"That's completely within state regulations," he said. "We are in compliance."

Saya Qualls, chief engineer for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, agreed.

A complicated renewal application can take a year, she said, and in the meantime, an agency like TVA still must meet the conditions of the expired one.

This case involved a holdup, she said, as a lawsuit related to permits elsewhere was fought out in court, and a draft environmental study was reviewed on the second nuclear reactor planned for Watts Bar.

Environmentalists view the expiration as a matter of concern, but one said he has seen worse cases in other states.

"It's not a good thing," said consultant Barry Sulkin of Nashville, a former water quality director with the state. "People assume permits are issued before they expire.
The reality is, that doesn't happen."

He said he has seen an operation in another state using a permit that had expired 17 years earlier.

Under the state's existing requirements, the water returned to the Tennessee River at one major outlet at Watts Bar can average up to 95 degrees on an hourly basis.

The highest monthly average last summer came in at 89.6 degrees, well under the
limit, according to one TVA report.

Qualls said the state, "to be safe," is waiting on TVA to provide more temperature-related information from last summer, when much of Tennessee was in severe drought conditions.

Demand will increase

Summer is the critical time for the Tennessee and other river systems, when water sitting in reservoirs can heat up under the sun, and electricity demand is high for air conditioning.

Too-high water temperatures on the Tennessee River led TVA to shut down one of the nuclear units last summer at its Browns Ferry plant in northern Alabama.

The agency also must cut back its electricity production at times there and elsewhere to keep plants from heating up the river beyond what their permits allow.

Browns Ferry, which has three reactors, is one of several TVA nuclear and coal-fired plants along the Tennessee River that all require large amounts of water for electricity generation and cooling.

"TVA and the state of Tennessee are not fully looking at the implications of what happens when they continue to grant any one of these permits," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Parameters can change

When the plants were first built 40 or so years ago, the temperature of the water released was not a large consideration, TVA's Bailey said. Technology helps the agency stay within its parameters and prevent harm to the environment.

"We'll continue to see this evolve over time," he said.

Changes could include ways still in development that would allow less water for power production, but would cost more, he said.

"If you're in a situation where water is at a premium then the price might not be the first consideration," Bailey said.

"You're trying to balance society's needs and the use of water."

The permit renewal is expected to be complete and put out for public comment this summer. But, while TVA's Moulton said it would cover both the current reactor and the one to be built, Qualls said that was not the case.

"We'll have to talk about that," she said.

Source: The Tennessean