Images © Alison M. Jones. · Website content © No Water No Life®, LLC. All rights reserved.
TVA Coal Fly Ash Spill
Interview at Kingston Fossil Plant, Harriman TN
On the Clinch River, a Tennessee River Tributary – Oct. 15, 2013
Kathryn Nash: TVA General Manager, Kingston Recovery Project
Duncan Mansfield: Communications Consultant on Issues Management
Carol Eimers: General Manager, Swan Pond Support Services
Neil Carriker: TVA Staff
Alison M. Jones: NWNL Director and Lead Photographer
Editor’s Notes by AMJ, August 2017
Editor’s Update, 2017: EPA Reactions to Spill
Coal Plants in Tennessee & Ohio Valleys
2008: On Dec. 22, 2008, more coal ash spilled into the Clinch and Emory Rivers than Deepwater Horizon oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The Tennessee Valley Authority, manager of the Kingston Fossil Plant, was fined $11.5 million by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
Due to that spill, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency [aka, EPA] reviewed toxicity and storage hazards of coal fly ash, a silica-like fine powder released when coal is burned to produce electricity, as is done at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant.
Chronology of EPA review
of Coal Combustion Residues:
2010: The National Precast Concrete Association, on how the spill provoked EPA analysis:
On Dec. 22, 2008, when a containment dike ruptured at Kingston Fossil Plant near Kingston, TN, it sent 1.1 billion gallons (4.2 billion liters) of coal fly ash slurry over 300 acres (122 hectares) of surrounding land, damaging homes and flowing into nearby rivers [at the confluence of Clinch and Emory Rivers, just before they flow into the Tennessee River.
This spill was the largest fly ash release in U.S. history. Cleanup costs are estimated to run anywhere between $525 million and $825 million, not including potential long-term cleanup. Before the Tennessee spill, the EPA categorized fly ash as a “special waste,” meaning it was exempt from federal hazardous waste regulations under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Now, due to increasing pressure from environmental groups, the EPA is considering reclassifying fly ash as a hazardous waste. Although an exemption would stay in place for use as an SCM [Supplementary Cementitious Materials], designation of fly ash as a hazardous waste will likely lead to its removal from project specifications and national codes and standards because of liability concerns.
If designated a hazardous waste, fly ash will also become more expensive to handle, making it less desirable for recycling into concrete mixes and other environmentally beneficial uses, thus increasing industrial waste and the need for even more “hazardous material” containment. Without fly ash as a recycled material component for use in concrete, the industry could face higher costs and loss of competitiveness as a green building material. And, of course, stricter regulation of fly ash would adversely affect concrete’s sustainability.
Many states and industry representatives have stepped forward to urge the EPA to consider nonhazardous waste regulation under RCRA Subtitle D, which would protect the beneficial uses of fly ash while still mandating appropriate practices for storage and disposal. As a result of these efforts, in June 2010, the EPA proposed the first nationwide rules for the disposal of ash from coal-fired power plants and opted not to classify the substance as hazardous.
2014: American Concrete Pavement Association on benefits of coal ash byproducts sent to EPA:
The overarching benefits of coal ash [are that it is] an essential material used in secondary cementitious materials and ternary mixes. Coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power generation, is recycled and used in transportation construction projects, improving project life spans and reducing material costs.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today ruled that the agency will not regulate recycled coal ash (including fly ash) as a “hazardous” waste… The announcement followed seven years of advocacy aimed at convincing EPA that a “hazardous” designation for coal ash would do more harm than good…. The overarching benefits of coal ash, [are that it is] an essential material used in secondary cementitious materials and ternary mixes. Coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power generation, is recycled and used in transportation construction projects, improving project life spans and reducing material costs.
Current: TVA CCR Rule Compliance Data and Information
[Editor’s Note: CCR is “Coal Combustion Residues.” The Kingston Fossil Plant has 9 coal-fired units generating CCR.]
2016: EPA Coal Ash Rule, Regulations for the disposal of CCR under subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Effective Oct. 4, 2016
These regulations address the risks from coal ash disposal – leaking of contaminants into ground water, blowing of contaminants into the air as dust, and the catastrophic failure of coal ash surface impoundments. Additionally, the rule sets out recordkeeping and reporting requirements, as well as the requirement for each facility to establish and post specific information to a publicly-accessible website.
Largest U.S. Coal Fly Ash Spill
NWNL: Hello. I’m here to discuss your 2008 coal-related slurry spill. I’d like to begin by defining coal fly ash and then discuss why storage can be so problematic?
KATHRYN NASH: When you burn wood in your home, there is ash that stays in the bottom of the fireplace and ash that goes up the chimney. This is what kind of happens here. This plant burns a pulverized coal. We end up with a byproduct when we burn coal that we have to deal with. It’s a fine powder that is blown into the boiler. Depending on which part of the country that you’re in, you can utilize those byproducts in roads, in roofing products and such. Here in Kingston, we store it. [See EPA Coal Ash Basics]
NWNL: In 2008 TVA coal fly ash spill smothered almost 300 acres. Is that what we see here?
KATHRYN NASH: From this overlook, we see some of the progress of recovery efforts from a spill of this stored coal fly ash that smothered almost 300 acres of land in late December 2008, almost five years ago.
NWNL: How was this coal fly ash originally stored?
KATHRYN NASH: This plant was built in the early 1950’s. Byproducts were handled with a wet-pond system. Everything was sluiced through pipes with water to a pond you can see in the far distance. As the pond filled up, TVA would dredge it to this area right in front of us. Most of the plants at that time had a similar wet-collection system. It was very popular then.
[EPA’s Frequent Questions about the Coal Ash Disposal Rule: ”Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects. Coal ash is disposed of in wet form in large surface impoundments and in dry form in landfills. EPA estimates of potential risk and evaluation of damage cases demonstrate that, without proper protections, these contaminants can leach into groundwater and can potentially migrate to drinking water sources, posing significant public health concerns.]
Kingston Fossil Plant: 2008 Spill Recovery Work
NWNL: How did the 2008 spill happen?
KATHRYN NASH: There is 60 years of ash sitting in this area of the plant. Through a combination of factors – poor foundation soils, wet ash, rain – the corner of the containment area failed and 5.4 million cubic acres of ash went out into the river system and surrounding areas. There are several reasons this happened. A perfect storm of events contributed to the failure.
There was rain that soaked into the containment cell. At the very bottom, when this was constructed in the ‘50s, there was a silty layer. Over the years, as everything was weighted on top of it, it became a poor foundation. That was another contributing factor. Having sluiced ash from a pond, although water was decanted off, there was still a wet base to the materials.
NWNL: I understand there was exceptionally heavy rain just before the impoundment broke open. Is TVA now factoring in future predictions of more severe weather on a more frequent basis in the future? Do you have plans to mitigate those conditions?
KATHRYN NASH: Since the spill, TVA has really gone to great efforts to make sure that all of the containment facilities pass engineering evaluations. Since late 2008 until today, we’ve gone to all of our ponds and holding facilities to look, drill and test their condition.
NWNL: These ponds weren’t lined. Will they now be lined?
KATHRYN NASH: The regulations in the 1950s and ’60s, when most of these ponds were constructed, did not require a liner. So, containment cells underneath these ponds are not lined. Any new landfills that TVA builds – such as the one we’re currently building on the backside of the property – will be lined for leaching collection.
NWNL: Can you line these older ponds retroactively to protect them from again leaching or spilling toxic pollutants into the rivers and onto nearby land?
KATHRYN NASH: No, not without removing everything. That was part of our evaluation. Everything that went into the river was shipped to landfill in Alabama. Then it was decided to look at options for everything that remained here. One option was whether to ship this landfill off-site or to keep it onsite. With that evaluation, the decision was to leave it here. The State of Tennessee and the EPA approved this. [See EPA Response to Kingston TVA Coal Ash Spill.]
Groundwater monitoring around the site is also done. TVA considered the multiple wells that surround the perimeter when it decided to leave all this material here without going back in and lining it. So we built an underground wall around the perimeter of site. It starts on the surface and goes down to bedrock on average, about 70 feet deep. It keys into the bedrock to withstand earthquakes – anywhere from around 1.5–6 feet, depending on the terrain. That wall, designed to withstand earthquakes at two different faults, has a 25-year design life. So if an earthquake hits this area, everything underground will liquefy; but that wall will hold everything in place and protect the material that’s on top of it.
NWNL: That’s impressive.
KATHRYN NASH: It’s one-of-a-kind. This will be the only facility that has a wall like that.
Spill Cause and Damage
NWNL: The spill poured over 1 billion gallons of toxic coal fly ash slurry into the Clinch and Emory Rivers just upstream of their confluence with the Tennessee River. What caused that wall to break and what was affected?
Railroad Lines at Kingston Fossil Plant
KATHRYN NASH: Ash went into the river system. We found ash about a mile-and-a-half downriver and about six miles upriver. It destroyed, or took out, some of the roads right around the site and the railroad. The first emergency response actions were to come in and open up the roads. We rebuilt the roads and the railroad so people around the site could get back to a more normal life with access in and out of their neighborhoods.
We then began a dredging program. At one time we had five dredges in the river. We dredged ash from the river, back onto our site in this area back here. Then, we processed that ash to get the moisture out of it. That ash went into rail cars to a landfill in Alabama.
NWNL: How did you help clean up homes and farms affected?
KATHRYN NASH: Most of the area where the ash went was TVA land, land belonging to the State, or Waters of the State. Some properties were impacted. Three homes were impacted. TVA purchased those properties from the homeowners.
NWNL: I read that 12 homes were covered and 42 were damaged.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: As TVA Communications Consultant, I can state there were three actually destroyed, a little bit.
NEIL CARRIKER: As TVA staff, I can add that 19 boat docks and boathouses were affected.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: I believe there were 12 other homes affected. Nobody was injured.
KATHRYN NASH: Yes, three homes were destroyed and 12 others impacted. But no one was injured during the spill.
NWNL: Was soil in farmers’ fields ruined for further agricultural use?
KATHRYN NASH: No. We actually did purchase an adjacent farm, which has clay material we’re using now. And later on, we’ll license part of that area to the Roane County so they can put in a recreational facility with ball fields and soccer fields.
NWNL: So, no coal ash was spilled onto any farms?
KATHRYN NASH: No farms were impacted from the spill.
NEIL CARRIKER: Part of the ash spilled into our East Embayment, blocking flow out of that embayment. Water coming into that area got bottled up behind the spilled ash. Regarding the farm TVA purchased, there were problems with water backing up there. Early in the process, we pumped water out of there to keep from flooding the access road to that property. Then, we installed a ditch to intercept that clean water and averted it around the spilled ash. But that’s the extent of impact to the farm where water backed up because of the downstream blockage.
NWNL: If you were a farmer, would you worry that the spillwater could have left the ground so toxic that anything that grew there would carry those toxins?
NEIL CARRIKER: No. The water that backed up there was water running from further upstream. It was the same water that was passing by there the entire time. It was dammed up by the ash downstream.
NWNL: I understand there were washed-out roads and an obstructed railroad (which you mentioned), as well as a ruptured main gas line, a broken water main, and downed power lines.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: The infrastructure that was damaged was largely confined to our site. The railroad that served the plant, a railroad line, and a company,
NWNL: What about the water main that broke?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Yeah. I’m not really sure what that was.
CAROL EIMERS: As General Manager of Swan Pond Support Services, I can explain. We hit a portion of the water main. The Harrison Utility Board water main broke, and we repaired a portion of that. So, yes, there was a water main break on a portion of it and we replaced that.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: You’ve got to understand. One portion of the large hill of ash accumulated over a number of years actually just collapsed [on that water main] and pretty much just stayed there.
Spill Impacts on River Life
NWNL: This spill occurred between two confluences of three Mississippi River tributaries. What are its toxic effects on the environment and aquatic species?
NEIL CARRIKER: In coal there are certain concentrations of trace elements. When you burn coal, those elements are more concentrated in the ash than they were in the coal because there’s much less volume and much less mass in the ash than there was in the coal.
The elements of particular concern in coal ash are arsenic and selenium. Arsenic is famed from “Arsenic and Old Lace.” It is a toxicant. Selenium is a toxicant. Concentrations that are high enough can cause problems with either human health or ecological receptors, in other words the critters than live in the area. Those were the two components of greatest concern.
[Editor’s Note: The EPA also identifies cadmium and mercury as contaminants in coal ash.]
TVA conducted extensive tests characterizing the ash, leachate from the ash, water in the river and its sediments. Of all of those, the two elements of greatest concern were arsenic and selenium. The concentrations that we see in [examined] tissues do not indicate that either are at levels that are reported in the literature to cause concern.
We evaluated concentrations of these materials in the tissues of animals and plants, and we looked at the fish community and bottom-dwelling bugs. We see no indications that those communities are any different here than they are in other parts of the river system or prior to the spill. There are no indications that there are any toxic effects on animals in this system.
NWNL: You’ve seen no impacts?
NEIL CARRIKER: Our investigations indicate that immediately following the spill animals on the bottom of the reservoir couldn’t escape and were buried. Animals from further upstream, or wherever, have moved back into those areas and have recolonized. Biological communities on the bottom of the river now are similar to those prior to the spill.
Fish were impacted immediately following the spill because there was a lot of suspended material in the water and that tended to clog their gills. That appears to have been a very transient, short-term stress on the fish community. Our investigations of the fish populations have shown no real impact from the spill on the composition or numbers of species or organisms present in the fish community.
NWNL: TVA is required to monitor wildlife in the spill area for 30 years. What range of spill impacts might you expect to see during that period on the Clinch and Emory Rivers’ fish and shellfish?
Freshwater Mussel Biodiversity
NEIL CARRIKER: The way a toxicant causes an effect is via a combination of dose and exposure. A low dose over a long period of time is called “a chronic exposure.” A chronic exposure can cause concentrations in tissues that cause problems for animals. A higher dose over a short period of time is “an acute exposure.” Acute exposures can have a much more rampant effect.
NWNL: These southern Appalachian rivers are well known for an unusually rich mussel biodiversity. The Clinch and Emory Rivers were the heart of the U. S. pearl industry. Before TVA dams, the Clinch was a major producer of fresh water mussels and their pearls up into the early 20th century. Today the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries host 102 mussel species!
NWNL has investigated mussels of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as an important thread in the biodiversity. What happened to the mussels here, since they are critters that couldn’t escape a spill into the river since their nature is to cling to their riverbed surfaces.
NEIL CARRIKER: The bottom-dwelling organisms in a river system fall principally into two categories. There are mussels, and there are insects that have an aquatic life in their larval form. The preponderance of the benthic [bottom-dwelling] organisms in most places are insects.
But. yes, the Tennessee River system – in particular, the Clinch – has a large diversity of mussels. The Clinch, as I understand, has probably the largest number of different species of mussels of nearly any place in the world. Those that were present in the area where the ash spilled obviously couldn’t escape. Both they and those aquatic insect larvae were smothered. Then as recovery occurred, organisms moved back into the area and repopulated those bottom segments back to pre-spill levels in 2008.
The Freshwater Mussel Pearl Industry
Every year since 2009, we’ve performed surveys of the fish community and bottom-dwelling organisms. In some disturbed places we couldn’t sample during the time we were dredging. But on completion of dredging in 2010, our subsequent surveys indicate that the number and types of organisms present are what you see upstream and in other parts of the Tennessee River system.
Spill Cleanup: Addressing Existing Radioactive Pollutants
NWNL: Kathryn, how is this spill being addressed and when will the cleanup be finished? TVA first predicted three months. But recovery has been much longer. It’s now 2013. So how long before waterways and land around here is back to normal?
KATHRYN NASH: The Emory River dredging was complete in mid-2010. So since then the river system has been open and what I’d consider back to normal. And there is now some recreation out there: people boating, fishing, playing in the water. Regarding the actual landfill closure, we have about another year until we close out this space in November 2014.
[Editor’s Note: The Project Completion Ceremony was held June 4, 2015. The Project Completion Fact Sheet was filed December 2014]
We’re lining it now. Out there you can see the liner a 40 millimeter-thick liner and a drainage layer on top of that. Then there is two feet of soil cover. We’ll add topsoil and plant grass seed. It will be about 30 feet lower in height than what was there before. At the end, when people are driving through the road, it will just look like a grassed hill. We won’t build on top of it or do anything with it. It will just be a closed-out facility to be monitored into the future. The river-system piece will also be monitored for up to 30 years.
Also we will look for the little bit of ash that was left in the river. We will follow whether that ash is moving; what’s happening to the fish and other critters in the water, and whether they are behaving the way that we think they will. We’re already seeing Mother Nature heal herself.
The Emory River has a lot of sediment inflow and that’s covering up the portions of ash left in the river. Most of the ash left in the river is covering some legacy contaminants that were in the river from Department of Energy. The decision was made that it would cause more harm to dredge those sediments than to leave them in there.
Spill Cleanup on Emory River
NWNL: So, the TVA coal fly ash toxins are covering older Department of Energy toxins that settled in the benthos. What specifically are those toxins that TVA would disturb if removed its recent coal fly ash toxins?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Some of the ash spill is deep within the river on top of previous releases by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Nuclear Reservation, there since the invention of the atomic bomb. [Editor’s Note: the NWNL visit to nearby Oak Ridge was cancelled due to the Federal Government Shutdown.] There are releases there that are radioactive. The Department of Energy determined 15 or 20 years ago that it was better to leave them there than to disturb them. Since the coal fly ash came in on top of that, a similar decision was made.
KATHRYN NASH: Part of the decision to leave the ash here and construct the wall was open to public comment. Everyone had time to read the documents and to look at each alternative, their costs; the time, and the risk factors. People made comments. Groups across this area, across Tennessee, and across the nation commented on the proposed decisions. The majority of people said, “Y’know, leave it here. It just makes more sense to leave it.” That was factored into the final decision and it is what a lot of people around the area think.
Protection From Future Spills
NWNL: Kathryn, are you confident that everything TVA’s doing will prevent future spills and if so, why? What mitigation efforts make you feel more confident today than the day after the spill?
KATHRYN NASH: Going forward, TVA has decided to go from wet storage of fly ash and other byproducts to dry storage. So, they will either close and retire plants, or they’ll convert them to a dry system. That is a major change to TVA’s philosophy of doing business since the spill occurred. This will take place over ten years. Some plants will close. Some will have new environmental controls and different handling techniques. There’s also an audit function and awareness ensuring that the older facilities here are brought up to date.
NWNL: On a scale of 1-10, how do you rate your confidence the day of the spill versus today?
KATHRYN NASH: I can’t really say. I am more confident; and I think everyone is. There’s more awareness. Environmental controls now in place on this Kingston plant and the new landfill going in at this facility are state of the art. So, this plan is really set for the future.
NWNL: The Superfund Program was selected for this spill as its regulatory framework, since it is very comprehensive regarding human health and ecological risk assessments and it actively engages multiple stakeholders. I assume TVA is not doing all of this clean up itself and that outside advisors are working on this very complex environmental cleanup project.
KATHRYN NASH: There are a lot of companies that have been here throughout this process and will continue to be here. TVA has a small oversight staff here. We hired Jacob’s Engineering, a local contracting firm with expertise in these types of projects and regulations, to help manage the project. And there are multiple contractors, engineering firms here, and construction companies doing the work. There’s EPA oversight and the State of Tennessee is also here. It takes a lot of people to make this happen.
NWNL: Is EPA here now during this Federal Government Shutdown?
KATHRYN NASH: Yes, the EPA still has an onsite representative here.
NWNL: Neil, in hindsight, do you think enough regulations are being put in place?
NEIL CARRIKER: This meets all regulatory standards at this time.
TVA Commitment to Community & Ecology
NWNL: Are there any further measures TVA should undertake?
CAROL EIMERS: TVA does have a recreational restoration component that’s giving back to the community. Shortly following the ash spill, TVA made a commitment to Roane County and the Swan Pond community most impacted to restore this area to being as good or better than it was before the spill. There are two pieces to that: a recreational component and a restoration component.
Restoration focuses on shoreline mitigation and stabilization. TVA is putting in habitat to attract the fish, and developing wetlands. Recreational efforts include putting in over three miles of walking trails, fishing piers, boat docks, and a walking bridge that will connect the Emory River to the North Embayment side. These recreational amenities are much more significant and user-friendly for folks from around here. In addition, we’re working with Roane County to develop a ball-field, a multi-use field, soccer fields and so forth.
NWNL: Is there anything local residents would like that would create further assurance?
CAROL EIMERS: I can’t speak to their confidence level. There was public input from the Roane County citizens in terms of the recreational restoration. Public meetings were held. So, there was input solicitation and community involvement from the get-go regarding the type of amenities and restoration they would like to see.
TVA outreach is broader than just the Swan Pond Community. After the ash spill, TVA donated $43 million towards Roane County. Roughly $32 million went towards the schools. The rest of it went towards infrastructure projects in all Roane County communities. We’ve had the community involved since this incident has occurred and their input has always been considered.
TVA Mission: “To improve the quality of life in the Valley through the integrated management of the region’s resources…, [and] to serve the people of the Tennessee Valley.…”
[Editor’s Note: In Aug 2017, a lawsuit was filed on lack of concern for the health of cleanup workers.]
EPA Oversight of Coal Ash Storage
NWNL: I understand the EPA does not consider coal fly ash to be a toxic pollutant.
NEIL CARRIKER: Coal fly ash is not regulated as a hazardous material. The EPA has considered changing the regulations and those proposals are still in review. Based on the information that we’ve collected here, I’d argue that it should not be classified as a hazardous material. If it were to be classified as a hazardous material, it is that would effectively eliminate usages in other purposes, such as additives to concrete or cinderblocks or road materials.
[Editor’s Note: Below are two industry comments on fly ash byproducts:
1. The American Concrete Pavement Assoc., Dec. 19, 2014: “The overarching benefits of coal ash [are as] an essential material used in secondary cementitious materials and ternary mixes… used in transportation construction projects, improving project life spans and reducing material costs.”
2. National Precast Concrete Assoc., Aug. 23, 2010: “Without fly ash recycled for use in concrete, the industry could face higher costs and loss of competitiveness as a green building material. And, of course, stricter regulation of fly ash would adversely affect concrete’s sustainability.”]
If coal fly ash were classified as a hazardous material, it would require that all disposal be in lined facilities. Frankly, the potential hazard that coal ash presents is so many orders of magnitude below anything that is classified as a hazardous material. In my opinion, wasting hazardous material disposal space on something like coal ash would be a terrible thing to do. [Editor’s Note: See EPA’s new Coal Ash Rule, effective October 4, 2016]
NWNL: Is the EPA doing this review because of the shockwaves from this spill?
NEIL CARRIKER: I think it’s partially because of the shockwaves that EPA is looking at that… if you want to call it a shockwave. This was an unprecedented event, and unprecedented events generate a lot of scrutiny. Deservedly so.
Due to increasing pressure from environmental groups, the EPA is considering reclassifying fly ash as a hazardous waste. Coal ash does contain materials that, with sufficient exposure and dosage, can cause problems in organisms. But the information that we’ve collected for this site indicates that there’s not been sufficient exposure and sufficient concentrations to cause adverse effects. So, I think it’s appropriate that the EPA look very closely at this situation. Others would argue that it’s taking them too long, but I think they’re looking at it very carefully to make the best possible decision.
NWNL: Kathryn, is there anything else you’d like to add?
KATHRYN NASH: I think significant progress has been made over the last five years. If you look at where we were before the spill and where we are today (five years later), the people who have been here, the time spent, and the companies that were involved, we’ve really come a long way. We’re right at the end. This will be cleaned up; and TVA did do what it said it was going to do.
NWNL: Kathryn and Carol, I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your time.
TVA Energy Mix: Dams, Coal & Nuclear
NWNL: Duncan, what is the value of coal, historically and currently?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Historically, coal has been a terrific source of fuel for power generation, because of its availability and low cost. Over time, environmental challenges have increased with coal, regarding emissions, byproducts and cleaner, low-cost energy. Other sources have been examined. No source of energy is completely clean.
So, the TVA has taken the view that there are benefits to all sources of energy. TVA is looking at increasing natural gas and nuclear, which have fewer emissions. But there is still a need for coal, for its dependability and to create a balanced energy portfolio. We don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket.
NWNL: At TVA’s Sequoia Nuclear Plant a week ago, we discussed that many think TVA was created to manage the Tennessee River’s damaging floods. That included dams and they produce some hydropower, so TVA became an energy producer. But, now TVA also produces coal and nuclear power. What strategy moved TVA into energy sales production? Many people seem confused about what TVA does.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: TVA was created for many purposes. Flood control is one. Commerce on the Tennessee River is one. Bringing prosperity to a deprived area was also of fundamental importance; and that included bringing electricity to the Tennessee Valley. That started with hydroelectric dams, and went from that to coal, and then to nuclear. TVA looks for sources that would be of low cost to consumers, because part of TVA’s mission is to provide electricity at rates that are as low as feasible.
NWNL: So is the energy TVA produces just sold to people within the Tennessee Valley, or is it also sold beyond?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: TVA is required and limited by Congress to sell electricity within the Tennessee Valley Region, which is a seven-state region. There are restrictions on other power generators coming into the valley, and restrictions on TVA selling power outside of the valley. We do have agreements with a limited number of other utilities to sell surplus power.
NWNL: What percentage of TVA power is sold outside of the Valley? Maybe 10%?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: No, it’s a very small percentage. We sell virtually all of our power to the nine million folks in the Tennessee Valley. We are a wholesale generator, selling directly to 155 local power companies that sell to their customers and we sell to 50 large industries or federal installations.
NWNL: How many does TVA expect to serve by 2050, and how will it meet that demand? I just was in a meeting with Nashville NEXT, hearing about a huge influx of population expected in this southeast area.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: I’m not sure what the future holds at this point. There are nine million people in the Tennessee Valley Region. As we look ahead at future power demand requirements for TVA, we consider energy efficiency – getting more out of each kilowatt of power.
Since the 2008 economic downfall, we have seen a decrease in our electricity sales over the last couple of years. We’re now anticipating it could be ten years before we return to peak demands of a couple of years ago. We’re evaluating our power mix and what kind of sources of energy that we need going forward. We’re looking at new technologies. Building small modular reactors is one of our future power options. We haven’t made that decision, but we’re studying it closely.
I can’t say how many people we’ll be serving, but that calculation also gets into fuel availability. Natural gas is inexpensive right now. We’ll have to see what happens as we look at our updated, 20-year resource plan to determine TVA needs and demands. To give you an idea of how the puzzle changes, the last update was just two years ago. Things have changed dramatically in just two years.
NWNL: What has caused those recent changes in the Valley’s energy demands?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Natural gas availability and lower prices. Very efficient gas plants since 2007 have taken advantage of that. TVA has added five natural gas combined-cycle plants. As well, the cost of environmental controls goes up. This plant has a scrubber unit in it. We’re installing a $1-billion scrubber on a plant near Nashville. These are huge commitments.
NWNL: These are interesting challenges. Population growth is expected, particularly in this region. Environmental concerns have come to the forefront. Climate change is making its mark. The economy has shifted dramatically. So many basic drivers either have changed, or are about to change.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Definitely. While I can’t elaborate on where we’re going, TVA is studying all options to meet future needs while trying to determine what those needs will be.
TVA’s Nuclear Energy
NWNL: We hear, “There’s no clean coal.” Is there such a thing as “clean coal”?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: There are a lot of definitions of clean coal, such as converting coal to gas and burning that gas. TVA is not doing that; but we are looking at ways of producing clean energy from coal with existing sources and emissions controls, starting with a low-sulfur coal product. Our research right now is looking mostly at nuclear, since it’s a non-carbon emitter. There’s an upside there.
NWNL: So, TVA is focusing less on coal due to emissions issues.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Yes. TVA is one of the few utilities in the country actively working on a nuclear power plant coming online in 2015. We’ll see how that flows through our mix of other sources.
Aerials of TVA Watts Bar Nuclear Plant
NWNL: Where will that nuclear plant be?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, Unit 1 is in Spring City, halfway between here and Chattanooga. It was brought on May 1996, and is the most recent U. S. nuclear reactor to come on. We anticipate a second unit will be online in 2015.
[Editor’s Note: Unit 2 began commercial operation in October 2016.]
NWNL: What is the future for TVA’s cancelled Hartsville Nuclear Plant that was to meet energy demands in the ’80s. One guy that I talked to there said, “I hear they’re bringing it back on. They’ve reconsidered.”
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Yeah, no.
NWNL: He said TVA is buying property there on the Cumberland River in Hartsville.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: I’m not aware of that. If so, it’s not for the nuclear plant, for sure.
NEIL CARRIKER: There’s a big transformation system…
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: … and a large warehousing operation there.
TVA Hartsville Nuclear Plant
NWNL: Hartsville was to have 4 units on two mirror-image sub-sites and thus be the largest nuclear plant ordered at that time. But then its reactors were cancelled in 1983-4.
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Actually, TVA decided to build 17 nuclear reactors at seven sites in the 1970s when electricity demand was jumping 7–8% a year.
It was building these simultaneously when demand growth fell off in the ’80s. TVA mothballed some plants and later abandoned some plants primarily because it didn’t need that generation. Hartsville was one of those. So that’s how things can change.
NWNL: I do understand though that there were regulatory slowdowns, high costs, and then the nuclear gridlock that followed the Three Mile Island meltdown. But wow – that 1984 decision was a two-billion-dollar abandonment!
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: TVA had finished two plants and then finished Watts Bar. There’s a fourth TVA nuclear plant in North Alabama called Bellefonte, which will be larger than anything else TVA has done. TVA is maintaining that asset to determine what to do with it. For now it’s also one of these plants where construction was stopped midstream.
TVA Sequoia Nuclear Plant
NWNL: What are the new modified reactors I’ve heard about?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: They are small modular reactors [SMRs], about a sixth of the size of a regular reactor.
Right now, TVA is looking at its first SMR project with Babcock & Wilcox to install up to four units near Oak Ridge – a site TVA has had along the Clinch River for many years. Those SMR units will be 180 megawatts each, built in pairs. The Department of Energy is very supportive of these units and contributing to the TVA study. TVA has to decide whether it will go with those units after examining costs, operating requirements and that sort of thing. You would have a uniform design that would be built in a factory, put on a freight car and sent to the site. These units have a number of very appealing advantages in passive systems.
NWNL: Do these smaller units need as much water as the larger reactors do?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: I think that that’s still being determined.
Climate Change Impacts
NWNL: How do climate change predictions of warmer air and water affect your dams, coal plants and nuclear plants?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: What’s unique about TVA is its Integrated System. It’s an approach nobody else does.
TVA Integrated System “Data Board”
NWNL: I saw that on the TVA “Action Board” in the TVA Kingsport headquarters, with hourly system status updates on hourly flows, river levels, water temperatures, electricity generation – all predicting system loads and demands! It’s like the CNN “Magic Wall.”
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: That Integrated System is part of our river and land stewardship.
NWNL: Do climate change predictions and global warming factor into the new technology of approach of these small modular reactors? You certainly don’t want more shutdowns because rivers are getting warmer. So I wonder if they will be less dependent on cool water? Are there ways to mitigate the effects of warmer temperatures?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: Nuclear plants. We’re still studying what will be required for the SMRs in the way of safety advantages. We’re looking at operating advantages that would address requirements provoked by the Fukishima tragedy. For instance, these units are built underground. But their water-use requirements are still being studied.
TVA Coal Ash & Dust Management
NWNL: Do you have anything else you want to say?
DUNCAN MANSFIELD: I just hope that you can appreciate the phenomenal amount of recovery work that’s gone on here at the Kingston Coal Ash Spill site. When this happened, TVA made a commitment to make the site look better than it looked before. I think that we’re doing that.
NWNL: Neil, what about dust management?
NEIL CARRIKER: Dust management following the spill was a concern. It was an issue we needed to deal with at the very beginning of the recovery. We’ve used a number of techniques to manage dust. Where we have active construction work or ash movement going on, we use water trucks to keep the surface of the ground moist so that wind can’t pick up the ash.
Water Truck Spraying Coal Fly Ash
NEIL CARRIKER: In areas where we have graded to final grade, or even sometimes where we have temporary storage, we’ve sprayed a material down that has a paint-type binder with newspaper pulp to fix the surface so that even if it does dry out, wind can’t pick up the material. We installed it early in the project. Within the first couple of weeks, we installed air-monitoring stations around the sites regardless of the wind direction, so we could monitor any dust coming off the site. That would be a problem. That would be a problem. Fortunately, our efforts have been successful.
NWNL: I thank you all for the great generosity of your time.
[Posted by NWNL on August 29, 2017. Transcription edited for clarity by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director. Our Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.]
All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.