Cranes baited, ready for hunting

It's official. Sandhill cranes that we once worried over as a species in decline - that we built a festival around when corn-baited fields lured them here to the Hiwassee Refuge where they could get a second chance - now are fair game.

The hunting season will run from Nov. 28 to Jan. 1, 2014, after the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Friday to include sandhill cranes in new waterfowl hunting regulations. The vote was unanimous to allow 400 three-permit hunting passes in October.

Never mind that threatened whooping cranes have and may still be mistaken for sandhill cranes. Oh, but not to worry: Hunters must pass a crane identification test. (And they needn't worry either about failing the test, because they can take it online over and over and over and over again -- as long as it takes. The only grade that will ever be counted will be the passing one.) Never mind, also, that there's probably just as much money in birdwatching the cranes as in hunting license fees to shoot at them.

Never mind, either, that taxpayers have for years funded plantings of what amount to baited fields managed by TWRA. Before now, such fields were designed to attract the beautiful birds in the name of wildlife conservation. In fact, these are places the birds have come to accept as safe and bountiful.

Gosh, if you or I did that on our fields, wouldn't TWRA say we were breaking the law?

Watch out for falling electric rates

We have some electric bill good news -- at least temporarily: Although TVA raised electric rates Thursday by 1.5 percent, Mother Nature's mild summer lowered power demand and that lowered TVA's fuel cost. TVA -- in order to dodge ratepayer fatigue and anger at rates that might change several times a year with crazy weather swings, voted some years ago to level rate fluctuations with a monthly fuel cost adjustment that requires no board actions or big announcements. Next month for instance, the fuel cost adjustment will lower bills by about 6 percent, TVA officials said Thursday.

But don't be lulled into thinking of that as regular thing. TVA lost its biggest industrial customer in May when the U.S. Enrichment Corp. plant in Paducah, Ky., shut down. Consequently the utility will sell 4.6 percent less electricity in fiscal 2014, and TVA power demand is not expected to get back to peak 2006 levels for more than a decade -- until 2024.

Meanwhile, nuclear costs will keep rising. Officials said the utility will continue to finish a second reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant and to maintain the option of finishing the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama and building new small modular reactors in Oak Ridge. Those investments, along with pollution controls on TVA coal plants, will require TVA to spend about $2 billion in its capital budget next year, boosting TVA's debt by about $1 billion. A billion here, a billion there -- it adds up.

Harwell seeks Bebb review

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell has joined other state lawmakers asking the state's Board of Professional Responsibility to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct by 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb.

Speaker Harwell appointed lawmakers to a House panel to review TBI files, an attorney general's report and other accounts looking into the allegations.

The allegations were raised in a six-day Times Free Press series in August 2012. The newspaper's series aired complaints of financial and ethical misbehavior by Bebb and people he supervised in the district attorney's office and the 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force.

Kudos, Madam Speaker.

Brown's Ferry still under red

Brown's Ferry Nuclear Plant, operating under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's red flag finding since 2011, will remain there until it and its operator, Tennessee Valley Authority, meet improvements in safety culture required by the NRC no later than Nov. 30, according to NRC spokesmen.

This is not the message TVA wanted to hear about the beleaguered nuclear plant that just last month received yet another lesser citation for an incident in December when the Unit 2 reactor tripped.

It's hard to muster confidence in TVA's nuclear safety program

It has been three years since TVA learned that a critical emergency coolant safety valve had been inoperable for 18 months without notice. That led to the red finding in 2011, and the red finding led to intense and continuing and expensive NRC oversight.

Now in 2013, NRC still says TVA has many of the same initial problems that it must fix -- by Nov. 30. Those problems include improvements "in safety culture, the corrective action program, the safety system reliability plan, work management processes and a procedure upgrade project." All this despite the two years of intensive NRC oversight?