published Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

CEO Bill Johnson pledges to improve TVA's nuclear performance

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    Bill Johnson is president and chief executive officer of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
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New TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson is beginning to talk about the days that will follow his self-described "100-day plan" of listening and learning.

On Friday, day 84, the self-professed "staunch nuclear proponent" acknowledged in a meeting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press that TVA's nuclear "performance is not where it needs to be."

He cited past delays and cost overruns at the still-under-construction Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor near Spring City, Tenn., and the continuing "red" safety flag at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in North Alabama.

"We are making progress," he said. "It's slow. One of my objectives is to make it run and run well."

Johnson said he sees his mission as one of "making the trains run on time" and of improving "how we conduct our business, how effective we are."

But he says "it's too soon to know, perfectly," if the utility will grow its nuclear footprint.

When Watts Bar is complete and running, the utility will evaluate electricity demand — especially in light of retiring coal plants -- and then weigh additional nuclear expansion. Possibilities would include the now-idled construction at Bellefonte and potential innovation with small modular reactors in Oak Ridge.

Done well, nuclear power is a very efficient, clean power source with a low CO2 footprint, Johnson said. But customer demand is flat or down since 2007, and other influences still are playing out — things like natural gas prices and climate legislation.

Johnson said small modular reactors may have an advantage in expansion planning because one of TVA's statutory duties is technological innovation.

"It's an intriguing idea," he said.

Critics have questioned whether TVA should be building any kind of additional capacity when conserving energy could help meet demand with far less cost.

Johnson said TVA doesn't have an economic incentive to build more power plants.

"Our business model is to recover our costs," he said. "What we have is an obligation every day to serve customer demand. If you can do that through efficiency and other things and you don't raise the price untowardly, then we should be helping get there. But I go back to [asking], what do consumers want and what will consumers put up with?"

Although polls indicate people are willing to pay more for alternate energy and more efficient and clean power, Johnson says history shows differently.

TVA's Green Power Switch program garnered only 12,000 customers — among 9 million overall — who signed up to pay extra to help fund alternative energy.

"I think we often take for granted consumer behavior in this. That to me is one of the difficult things to change," Johnson said.

As for what TVA workers and ratepayers should expect on day 101 of Johnson's tenure?

Johnson grinned.

"There's a lot of speculation. I may go on vacation, just to keep the suspense building."

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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