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BOB MOON: Utility companies are lining up for federal subsidies that will help power up plans for more than 30 nuclear reactors in the country. Just for the record, there have been no reactors ordered here in the U.S. since things went haywire at Three Mile Island back in 1979. Looking for a spot at the head of the line is the country’s largest public utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA officials have been telling energy agencies that more nuclear power will be needed to meet increasing energy demand in the Southeast. Blake Farmer begins our story begins in the TVA town of Spring City, Tennessee.
BLAKE FARMER: Spring City would probably fade into the backdrop of rural America except that it sits next door to the newest and most expensive nuclear reactor in the country.
Watts Bar came online in 1996 to the tune of $6 billion. There’s also an unfinished reactor there, and TVA’s considering spending a couple billion to fire it up.
Wendy Bearman is the lone employee of the Spring City Chamber of Commerce. She calls TVA a “good partner” and says most of the 2,400 people here feel safe living near a nuclear reactor.
WENDY BEARMAN: The only time it’s an issue is at noon on the first Wednesday of the month when the siren goes off. That’s it. They test the sirens.
There isn’t much economic development that isn’t tied to the plant here.
Not everyone in the neighborhood is so receptive to atom-splitting. Driving around town, activist Ann Harris says utilities use job growth to sell the idea of placing reactors in depressed regions.
ANN HARRIS: The industry has made the south a dumping ground for stuff that they don’t want to live with.
Harris is with the nuclear whistleblower group We the People. She’s a former TVA employee who helped build the Watts Bar plant, an experience that’s left her disillusioned with nuclear power.
HARRIS: It’s just a crappy way to boil water. The worst of it is, they can’t get all this crap back in the little bottle whenever they spilled it all out.
That mentality puts utilities that want to expand nuclear energy at odds with many communities, says Robert Bryce, managing editor of the Energy Tribune. He says many still fear the effects of radioactive waste.
Though the threat is real, Bryce says it’s a choice between carbon-puffing coal and nuclear power. He says wind and solar energy don’t have the capacity to meet demand.
ROBERT BRYCE: Every energy source has some negative effects. The question is, you’ve got to pick your poison.
Despite the momentum building behind nuclear power, Bryce says investors have been burned by nuclear in the past. That’s part of the reason Washington is offering billions in incentives to build more reactors.
TVA itself is still crawling out from $25 billion in debt, largely taken on because of an overly-ambitious plan to expand nuclear power in the ’70s.
I’m Blake Farmer for Marketplace.
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