Photo by Dave Flessner / TVA President Jeff Lyash addresses the Chattanooga Rotary Club.

Despite the loss of thousands of TVA jobs in Chattanooga over the past four decades, Chattanooga remains the heartbeat of TVA's single-biggest source of power and will remain one of Chattanooga's biggest employers, the head of federal utility said Thursday.

In a speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club, TVA President Jeff Lyash called Chattanooga "the nuclear heartbeat" for TVA, which is looking at ways to both develop the next generation of smaller reactors and extend the life of its existing atomic plants.

TVA, the nation's biggest public utility, derives more than 40% of its electricity from its seven nuclear reactors — more than twice the U.S. average and twice the share of any other of TVA's generation sources.

Lyash said TVA is currently studying the potential of building small modular reactors in Oak Ridge near where America's "Atoms for Peace" program after World War II first developed nuclear energy. TVA also is considering whether to seek another 20-year life extension to the Browns Ferry, Sequoyah and Watts Bar nuclear plants in Tennessee and Alabama.

Lyash, a nuclear engineer and trained senior reactor operator who previously worked at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wants TVA to improve its nuclear plant performance and potentially expand nuclear output even as other U.S. utilities are shutting down aging nuclear plants.

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Staff photo by Tim Barber / The sun sets on TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, which operates two of TVA's seven reactors.

"We have a real opportunity to improve our nuclear fleet and get some more energy out of our existing plants, which is where we are focused now," Lyash said. "My objective for our nuclear team is to be top quartile performers (among the 25% best performing nuclear utilities) by 2022."

Currently, TVA is slightly below the industry average for power output from its nuclear plants. But equipment and design improvements and the recent $475 million power uprate that added 465 megawatts of output at Browns Ferry should improve TVA performance.

Although Browns Ferry is more than a half century old and Sequoyah and Watts Bar were designed in a pre-digital control era decades ago, Lyash said TVA's nuclear plants can be maintained, improved and extended for decades into the future.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues licences for nuclear power plants to operate for up to 40 years and allows licences to be renewed for up to 20 years with every renewal application, as long as operators prove that plant structures and components will be adequately managed.

Other U.S. utilities have shut down nuclear plants at Oyster Creek, Vermont Yankee, San Onofre, Kewaunee, Crystal River, Fort Calhoun and Three Mile Island over the past three decades due to equipment problems or cheaper power alternatives. But Lyash said TVA's nuclear fleet should be sustained and is key to TVA's cuts in greenhouse gas emissions linked with global warming.

Since 2005, TVA has cuts its carbon emissions by 60% and plans to achieve a 70% reduction by 2030 and an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2040. Lyash said sustained nuclear generation and more renewable power, backed up by natural gas and some cleaner coal generation, should help achieve its long-range targets.

The engineering and economic analysis for improving TVA's nuclear power programs is being done at the Chattanooga Office of Power, which employs nearly 2,600 workers downtown as home for TVA's transmission network, nuclear power program, human resources group, IT operations and renewable power division. Elsewhere in Hamilton County, TVA has about 850 workers at its twin-reactor Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant in Soddy-Daisy.

Since its employment peak in 1981 when TVA had more than 52,000 employees, TVA has cut several thousand workers in the Chattanooga area, especially after it quit building new nuclear plants and scrapped plans to finish its nearby Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Alabama. TVA continues to pare some jobs, including another 108 IT jobs this spring at its Chattanooga computer center and plans to shift 175 jobs at its power operations center from downtown Chattanooga to a new $300 million facility being built in Georgetown by 2023.

But Lyash said other jobs in Chattanooga will be needed, including the potential design and building of small modular reactors at the site of the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Oak Ridge. TVA and DOE are jointly studying that option and the engineering work for that project is being done in Chattanooga, Lyash said.

"Chattanooga has always been a high priority for TVA," he said.

TVA was created in 1933, in part, to help control flooding on the Tennessee River that often damaged Chattanooga where the mountains and Tennessee River that create the "Scenic City" also leave much of the city prone to flooding after heavy rains and runoff into America's fifth biggest river which flows through downtown Chattanooga.

Since the Norris Dam was built as TVA's first dam in 1936 to help harness the power of the Tennessee River, TVA estimates its network of what has grown to 49 dams has helped avoid nearly $10 billion of flood damage to Chattanooga, including $1.4 billion last winter.

Without TVA's, last year's foods would have left the carousel at Coolidge Park to be 9 feet under water, the Staybridge Suites hotel downtown would have had 6 feet of water at its door ,and all of the runways at Chattanooga's airport would have been flooded."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.