Anti-nuclear summit planned in Chattanooga this month

photo Ray Golden, manager of nuclear communications for the Tennessee Valley Authority, stands in front of a set of empty dry casks that will house used nuclear fuel rods at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant.

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Hoping to capitalize on concerns about Fukushima and local nuclear plant problems, 25 anti-nuclear groups plan a "Know Nukes Y'all Summit" in Chattanooga at the end of June.

"The South is ground zero," with five new reactors under construction and more planned by TVA, said Sandy Kurtz, president of the Bellefonte Efficiency & Sustainability Team -- BEST, for short.

"We want people to be more educated about nuclear issues," she said.

Her group opposes completion of the Tennessee Valley Authority's stalled fourth nuclear plant -- Bellefonte, near Scottsboro, Ala. -- and other reactors in the South.

Opinion polls show the Fukushima disaster in Japan has shifted the public's thinking about nuclear issues, making people more wary.

Polls also show overall nuclear support has slipped, according to environmental surveys the Gallup Organization conducts each March.

In 2010, 62 percent of respondents favored nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity for the U.S. and 33 percent opposed it.

This year, 57 percent favored nuclear power and 40 percent opposed it, according to Gallup's website.

The more than 20 groups sponsoring the summit are taking on nuclear power in what may be its strongest region.

Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory produced uranium-235 for the Manhattan Project, the eventual winner in the race to build the first nuclear bomb during World War II.

Now Chattanooga is the nucleus of TVA's nuclear power operations. The federal utility has three operating nuclear plants -- Browns Ferry near Athens, Ala.; Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn.; and Sequoyah in Soddy-Daisy -- with six reactors within about 100 miles of Chattanooga.

A seventh reactor is under construction at Watts Bar, and Bellefonte has two half-finished reactors. TVA officials have said they may consider building small modular reactors near Oak Ridge.

TVA spokesman Ray Golden said the utility declined to comment on the summit.

But organizers say that just one week after sending out emails, they already have more than 60 registrations for the June 28-30 summit at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Glenn Carroll, president of Nuclear Watch South, headquartered in Atlanta, said organizers are looking for at least 100, perhaps 200 registrations.

"There's a lot at stake in the South, and in Tennessee," said Carroll. "In the Northeast, most nuclear building has stopped, but in the South it's gearing up. And the Tennessee River Valley has more than its share of radiological manufacturing, even weapons plants."

Kurtz said the summit's Thursday evening keynote session is called "the Dave and Dave show."

One Dave is David Freeman, a former TVA board chairman who earlier this year said the agency should abandon its nuclear construction plan because he says it is too demanding and too expensive.

The other Dave is Dave Lochbaum, a former TVA nuclear engineer at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission instructor. Lochbaum now is director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based nonprofit organization that advocates safety and is neither anti- nor pro-nuclear.

"We don't make the pro-nuke folks happy, and we don't make the anti-nuclear folks happy either," Lochbaum said, calling his group "the neutral nuclear Switzerland."

"Our message is that there are some lessons to be learned from Fukushima, but safety IOUs don't protect anybody. We need to get those lessons behind us in the rear-view mirror, instead of still in the road ahead."