We Need a Nuclear New Deal
And the Tennessee Valley Authority is the perfect utility to manage it.
Under a clear blue sky, on October 19, 2016, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) became the first—and still only—American utility to bring a new nuclear reactor online in the 21st century. It was decades in the making; although construction on Watts Bar Unit 2 had started back in 1973, the project was put on ice in 1985 once the aftershocks of the 1970s energy crisis abated and demand for electricity slowed once more. It wasn’t until 2007, in the face of rising power needs, that the TVA resumed construction on the plant.
On the nuclear reactor’s first day of operation, TVA’s chief executive shared an outlook that matched the blue sky. After the long process of building the plant, “we set off on a new journey, a 40-year minimum journey, maybe longer, of reliable, low-cost electrical power for people of the region."
In the time since that speech, this one reactor in eastern Tennessee has generated almost as much carbon-free energy as all the wind turbines and solar panels in New England combined. In fact, TVA’s whole nuclear fleet of seven reactors, with a total daily capacity of about 8.3 GW of power, has generated more over that period than the approximately 34.2 GW of intermittent power that California’s great wind and solar industry has brought to market, and with only a minuscule fraction of the land (and rooftop) footprint. Moreover, unlike much of New England and California’s green energy installations, all that TVA nuclear power is publicly-owned, producing energy at cost, not for profit—and not for Wall Street, whom federal tax credits for “green energy” were set up to enrich. That’s a lot of clean public power.
Despite this public enterprise’s demonstrated capacity to invest in and build clean infrastructure—and in a more conservative part of the country at that—American politics seems woefully incapable of recognizing TVA’s potential as “big public power.”
Now, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—which breaks with decades of tradition by extending federal clean energy subsidies to public power systems—it’s time to revive that older American tradition. We need a new bipartisan politics of nuclear-powered decarbonization, and TVA should be front and center.
A Century Since the New Deal
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the TVA in 1933 as a government-owned corporation that would develop the impoverished, rural Southeast with massive public works focused on the Tennessee River system. A source of devastating floods, the river would be harnessed for the public good, and its electrical potential in particular would be tapped for the modernization of the area’s residents and economy. It was a crown jewel of the New Deal, one of the few to endure to the present day.
Still the nation’s largest public power system, the TVA operates a grid cleaner than neighboring market-based grid areas MISO and PJM, according to EPA data, and it provides power at cost for 10 million people. That’s thanks to TVA’s legacy hydropower infrastructure and, in particular, its seven nuclear reactors that churn out four times more clean energy than its hydroelectric sites.
These days, Roosevelt’s crown jewel seems more like a forgotten relic. From the 2016 presidential election that took place three weeks after Watts Bar’s activation, to the 2018 Green New Deal resolution of Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to the 2020 presidential election, and all the way to the IRA, U.S. discourse around green energy has been changing, and yet the TVA’s potential for clean public power goes mostly unnoticed.
Instead, our contemporary politics of decarbonization, as voiced from conservatives and liberals alike, sees the government’s role as merely coaxing private investors in certain directions, say, with federal tax credits. Last year, Damage magazine described such policy-making as “the invisible hand of the state,” in which government is merely “a referee who will occasionally assist the players but never partake in the game itself.” The IRA exemplifies exactly this approach by appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars as lucrative tax credits to entice private investors into building clean energy infrastructure. Thankfully, though, the law also breaks decades of tradition by finally making public entities like the TVA eligible for some of these tax credits, a development The American Prospect has deemed “a quiet revolution on public power.”
Yet the success of the TVA deserves even more political attention. After all, its originator, Roosevelt, won elections in part on the promise that the federal and state governments would produce cheap power themselves. “Electricity is no longer a luxury. It is a definite necessity,” Roosevelt declared in a landmark 1932 campaign speech to a packed audience in Portland, Oregon. At the same time, he castigated private utilities for fraudulent practices and for underinvestment in electrification. (“Judge me by the enemies I have made,” he implored in the same speech.) His enormously popular New Deal coalition delivered the TVA, and then the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest, as direct government investments in public infrastructure, aimed at electrification at lower prices. Back then the state had a very visible hand, and a popular one at that.
On the national stage, there has been only one player with much interest in replicating the TVA model for clean energy infrastructure: Senator Bernie Sanders. In his 2020 presidential campaign, he attempted to rekindle its New Deal vision. Echoing the “Green TVA” proposal from the People’s Policy Project, the democratic socialist Sanders called for “expanding the existing federal Power Marketing Administrations [and TVA] to build new solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources.”
Unfortunately, that plan suffered a tremendous drawback: Whereas the broad goal—clean, cheap publicly-held energy—was laudable, its precise energy mix—100% renewables by 2030—was fantastical. To meet that goal, the plan proposed drawing down not just fossil fuels but nuclear power: it included a moratorium on license renewals, which would cut short Watts Bar’s decades and decades of projected life, and even new plant construction. Progressive climate wonk Leah Stokes called the proposal “very expensive and very technically difficult” without nuclear, and Nick Loris at the conservative Heritage Foundation opposed it, arguing instead for market competition. In the end, of course, Sanders’ campaign for president was unsuccessful, leaving the policy proposal just that. Later invocations of the Green New Deal abandoned his focus on the New Deal’s big public power.
Good for Clean Energy, Bad for Investors
For a modern industrial society, nuclear energy presents many benefits.
In the United States, nuclear accounts for nearly one-fifth of the nation’s electricity—just behind coal, and about half as much as natural gas—and it’s a solid half of our clean electricity. The sector reliably churns out clean energy around the clock, no matter the weather. Its fuel is not a volatile global commodity, like the liquefied natural gas supplies disrupted by the war in Ukraine. Its massive steam-powered turbines provide critical inertia for the power grid. Its intense heat offers an irreplaceable input for new clean industrial processes like the production of hydrogen—which could be used as a clean fuel for flexible power generation or for transportation.
Particularly important for the nationwide politics of decarbonization is nuclear energy’s minimal land use. According to recent research, the land-use intensity of nuclear generation is 100 times lower than that of ground-mounted solar, and more than 1,000 times lower than that of wind turbines, when counting the land between turbines, but without even considering all the transmission lines needed to connect turbines to cities. Critics of nuclear highlight long, difficult fights for plant permits, but the task of acquiring 1,000 times the land area for wind turbines—plus property rights and environmental permits, as well as winning over local opposition—sounds more like a game of SimCity than a democratic political program.
Finally, nuclear infrastructure is long-lasting and demands large, permanent workforces of highly-skilled labor ripe for unionization. Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people work at a conventional nuclear plant, not to mention all the additional “induced” jobs that pop up in the towns around a nuclear plant to support its workforce, and that plant can last more than half a century. Attracting local support for nuclear projects with these good jobs might prove easier than it is for wind and solar projects that offer essentially none for the local working class once built.
With all those reasons to invest in nuclear power, why isn’t the market doing exactly that? Why is it that the federal government, through the TVA, is the only entity that’s so far managed to turn on a new nuclear power plant in the 21st century?
In short, it’s because capitalists, the private investors with the power to decide what gets produced in “the market,” haven’t seen a strong enough guarantee of returns on investment in nuclear plants. Plants like Pilgrim in Massachusetts and Oyster Creek in New Jersey have recently closed because they aren’t earning high enough profits for shareholders. Analyst Edgardo Sepulveda shows that privately-owned reactors have fared worse than publicly-owned ones over recent years: The total capacity of the former has declined while that of the latter has risen slightly due to plant upgrades.
After waning for decades, the 2000s seemed to usher in a “nuclear renaissance” of private investment in nuclear power, with as many as 31 new reactors proposed. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, for example, signed by U.S. President George W. Bush, mitigated some of the investment risk of nuclear plant construction through new federal loans for construction and a production tax credit like what had long been available for renewable energy projects. As part of a public power system with no tax bill, however, TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 2 wasn’t eligible for the latter; since they were only for new plants, and there haven’t been any, that means no plant ever got them.
By 2017, only two modern reactor projects were left standing, that is, under construction: the private utility Southern Company’s long-delayed, over-budget Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia. “No one involved seemed to fully appreciate just how difficult it would be to build new reactors,” the Financial Times reported, “especially the AP1000—a ‘first of a kind’ design—when much of the industry’s experience and capability for managing such large nuclear projects had been lost.” Reusing the design, licensing, and even some of the construction crew to repeat the installation for new nuclear plants would go a long way to lower the costs—that is, if anyone dared to invest in it.
“Capitalism irrationally constrains what we have,” writes socialist science writer Leigh Phillips. “It limits production to the set of things that are profitable, while the set of things that are useful is much larger.” Nuclear power seems to be a case in point.
Electricity Deregulation Reshapes Markets, and Nuclear Suffers
But why have the projects been so bad for investors? Increased construction costs, due to expanding regulatory demands for example, played a part in the withering of nuclear investment. The general perception of major risks after the Fukushima disaster contributed too. But the real culprit, the one also causing owners to close existing plants, lay in the inability for investors to guarantee profitable returns over the long—very long—lifetime of a plant after that pricy construction.
The Great Recession hit shortly after the nuclear renaissance was announced, causing electricity demand to stagnate. “It was the first time in the 60-year data series … that electricity use fell in two consecutive years,” the federal Energy Information Administration stated in 2010. And thanks to the rise of fracked natural gas, electricity prices remained relatively low as well. Both factors undermined the case for nuclear investment. An electrified politics of clean energy investment—for decarbonization, for energy security, and for new industrial development—had not yet gripped American politics to the extent it has today, when it has bolstered future demand for reliable, clean electricity.
But a more structural cause was perhaps more important than stagnant demand. For the last several decades, a bipartisan wave of electricity restructuring, generally known as “deregulation,” rocketed around the United States, beginning in the 1970s and later picking up speed. Conceived out of an ideology of efficient markets and the awesome power of consumers, deregulation fundamentally remade electricity markets in much of the country, as did the same spirit in sectors like trucking, air travel, and telecoms.
In the restructured markets, generation assets would no longer be built by monopoly utilities that also owned distribution systems and collected state-regulated revenues from retail customers, but instead by “merchant generators” that compete in intricately-designed exchanges. These exchanges would be set up to reward assets that either generate energy passively, without operational costs, like wind and solar generators, or assets that can “flexibly” react to those passive generators on demand, like energy storage and generators powered by waste and natural gas. Investments in the former were incentivized by the design of the exchanges, by governments and by corporations seeking green credentials, while investments in the latter offered safe returns because of how well they complemented the former. When the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, renewables outcompete the rest, while natural gas flexibly picks up where they left off.
As a result, infrastructure that serves as a constant, firm source of power, like nuclear and coal plants—which aren’t easily ramped up or down, and therefore require continuous operation—have struggled to compete in these exchanges. That nuclear energy is carbon-free unfortunately doesn’t matter; the incentives set up by deregulation reward renewables and flexibility instead.
“Natural gas is queen right now,” a major nuclear executive proclaimed to the conservative American Enterprise Institute in 2011, back when natural gas prices had plummeted after a long climb. “The price of natural gas sets the price for electricity in a number of the competitive regions in the country … So the output of my nuclear plants has greater or lesser value depending in part on the price of natural gas.”
Since last year, the price of natural gas in the United States has been surging once more, partly because of supply chain issues around the world related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “There’s nothing like an energy crisis to make nuclear look really good,” as the CEO of a clean-energy think tank told E&E News earlier this year. In Europe and in Asia, too, skyrocketing natural gas prices are helping make the case for new nuclear investment, called for by national governments.
All this goes to show that, in capitalist practice, the prospects for nuclear are leashed to the volatile, unpredictable swings of fossil fuel prices, particularly of natural gas. And in large part, that’s the result not of government regulation and subsidies in favor of renewables or against nuclear, but of electricity deregulation, a historical project of the investor class themselves to make the most money for the least expenditure. Large industrial customers sought the ability to play the market for their power purchases, and they got it. Fast forward a few decades and corporate behemoths like Amazon have become the leading agents of (renewable) energy investment.
To be sure, with all that natural gas and renewable generation replacing coal in much of America’s grid, there’s been a material, positive impact on the air and the environment since deregulation started. But, in theory, shouldn’t it also have resulted in lower prices for consumers? “Contrary to the objectives of deregulation,” argue researchers at MIT and Harvard in work published this summer, “prices increased in deregulated markets.” The efficiency gains it produced were gobbled up by the investors, not transferred to consumers as lower retail prices—or at least not residential consumers. Federal data shows that, since 2001, average residential prices have slightly increased, while average commercial and industrial prices have indeed decreased, after accounting for inflation.
Deregulation brought flexibility but also enticed investors toward safer investments in smaller-scale power, away from nuclear plants. Because they’re "long-term assets in a short-term world,” nuclear economics consultant Edward D. Kee has argued, nuclear plants are “a poor fit with wholesale electricity markets.” In a 2016 analysis of energy market failures, one solution he proposed is direct government ownership of struggling plants, “as in France, China, South Korea, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates.” France, for example, has its original nuclear utility EDF (Électricité de France), which Paris recently moved to renationalize in an effort to shore up its struggling plants. But what could possibly play a similar role in the United States?
The answer might be staring us right in the face, or at least those of us bothering to look ahead: the TVA.
What Would a Nationwide Nuclear TVA Look Like?
“Just as the TVA was used to achieve the electrification goals of the first New Deal, it should be used to achieve the (carbon-free) electrification goals of the Green New Deal.“ That sentiment formed the basis of the 2019 Green TVA report from the People’s Policy Project, which the Sanders 2020 campaign later incorporated into its Green New Deal plans.
That high-level idea was never fleshed out in detail and the call hasn’t been picked up by any politician since. But it should be. Here’s what it would mean to put TVA front and center of a new national politics of nuclear-powered clean industrial development.
The first big question for a TVA National Nuclear Program would be who will use all that new power? It’s one thing to project that, nationwide, we’ll need a three-to-fourfold increase in electricity generation for economy-wide decarbonization, as Princeton’s landmark Net Zero America study does; but it’s another to build the new capacity and demand in tandem. Rather than tossing subsidies to private investors and hoping the market works it out, a TVA National Nuclear Program could strategically direct resources, with two core purposes.
First, it would direct the process of building new nuclear plants so that such development can restart in the United States, as in South Korea, China, and Finland, hopefully soon to be joined by the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. The domestic capacity to carry out such projects—in licensing, in construction, in management—requires experience and practice, something TVA has. Perhaps most importantly, building requires the kind of coordination and political will that state-owned enterprises have traditionally offered nuclear development in many countries.
Second, the nuclear plants built by this program would produce reliable, constant electricity or heat, both of which could be used as input to all kinds of new industrial facilities. Between the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the IRA, there will be a wave of investment in research and development in clean industrial technology, like hydrogen fuels and direct air capture of carbon. The Department of Energy is already working on two programs to create regional hubs for each of these two technologies. And due to subsidies in the IRA, private investment for new mining and manufacturing facilities, needed for clean energy, should be forthcoming. Those facilities will surely demand intense amounts of power.
In addition to its service to national industrial policy, the power from new plants in a TVA National Nuclear Program could be used to supply TVA’s existing customer base as well. Municipal utilities could have more electrical potential for decarbonizing infrastructure, like electric-vehicle charging and electrified heating. Or TVA could potentially reduce generation—and therefore fuel costs and emissions—in some of its combined-cycle gas plants. Building out the TVA’s nuclear capacity could enable the authority to retire its last coal plants, and perhaps even obviate TVA’s current plans for more natural gas infrastructure.
The second big question for a TVA National Nuclear Program is who’s going to pay for it? Here, the answer might be a combination of direct federal appropriation—not unlike the appropriations that have “paid for” various energy tax credits for decades, now ramped up in the IRA—and TVA bond debt. The latter is how TVA has financed its power program for over half a century: by issuing bonds that are repaid over long-term horizons using revenues from electric sales.
In the original days of TVA, the authority relied on federal appropriations to construct its dams and hydroelectric generators. In 1959, however, new legislation gave TVA the power to raise its own bonds, up to a certain debt limit, in order to finance its power program. To facilitate TVA construction, Congress increased the body’s debt limit four times in the 1960s and 1970s, landing in 1979 on the present nominal value of $30 billion—a staggering amount at the time, worth over $100 billion in today’s dollars.
According to its most recent SEC filing, TVA has about one-third of this $30 billion debt remaining to use. And that limit could even be raised by Congress; after all, the 1979 increase was intended to facilitate the completion of the (scaled back) fleet of nuclear reactors that included Watts Bar Unit 2. Or perhaps TVA could be granted the authority to raise something analogous to green bonds, as the People’s Policy Project proposed, to attract capital from investors seeking to meet so-called ESG goals. That would likely rest on the challenge of legally codifying nuclear power as “green”—an uphill battle, to be sure, but one recently won in Europe and Canada.
If TVA were to build new nuclear plants as a matter of national energy policy, then TVA’s existing customers shouldn’t be expected to foot the bill. The national aims of the program suggest that the federal government should pay for the fraction of new power allocated to new clean industrial development, while the normal TVA electric sales should pay for the fraction of power allocated to its existing system.
Such an accounting split has precedent in TVA’s origin. The original power program rested on the divided valuation of a key federal dam, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for earlier wartime production of nitrates, split between its navigational and hydroelectric purposes. The former purpose was a matter of national policy, while the latter would be part of the TVA power system, to be paid for by customers. The earliest TVA administrators applied clever accounting to ensure the latter portion was small, to the chagrin of private utilities but to the gain of its customers. That strategy could be applied again.
What’s Keeping the TVA from Providing Power Nationwide?
Perhaps the greatest legal stricture on a TVA National Nuclear Program is what’s called “the TVA fence.” Established in 1959, the TVA fence was the solution to the problem that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had, in 1953, called TVA’s “creeping socialism,” that is, the use of federal money to subsidize a particular region of the country at the expense of others. By freezing its geographical territory in statute—the fence—TVA would be prohibited from expanding and thereby snatching away yet more businesses hungry for its cheap power. The United States has maintained that fence ever since, along with protections for TVA’s monopoly to supply power within it.
If the fence were removed and TVA could somehow build new nuclear plants anywhere in the nation, how would it market the power? In the closed TVA system, it more or less controls the resources in the grid; anyone looking for power has to go through TVA. But the rest of the country is a different story.
In particular, if TVA behaved as a merchant generator in a restructured market—like in New York, for example—how could it find customers for its new nuclear power? Would it sell into the wholesale markets, like other generation assets do, or find distribution utilities to sell to? How could it escape the same economic problems faced by other nuclear plants in such markets, where natural gas, wind and solar generators eat into the potential revenue streams when gas prices happen to be low or weather happens to be favorable?
Perhaps new nuclear plants in this program could be restricted to the public power systems of the four federal Power Marketing Administrations, all of which sell power (mostly hydroelectric) from federal resources. Roosevelt created the first and largest, Bonneville, as part of the New Deal national policy of electrification and development in the wake of the Great Depression, like the TVA. These PMAs already have business relationships with a constellation of rural and municipal utility customers—ranging from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Los Angeles, California—along with large industrial customers as well.
Why Nuclear Energy and Not Renewables?
If TVA is to be the center of new national policy for decarbonization, why focus on nuclear? Why not similarly plan on TVA building out wind and solar projects? After all, in Sanders’ framing, the point of a TVA-led Green New Deal was to direct TVA to build renewable generation projects nationwide.
First, public power systems like TVA primarily sell firm power: guaranteed blocks of power that customers—local utilities and large industrial facilities—can rely on to meet their needs. If TVA wants to sign a contract to sell a large new chunk of firm power to the clean industrial facility of tomorrow, how does it supply that chunk?
If the new clean generation capacity in the TVA system were instead primarily wind or solar, then TVA would have to supplement this variable power with another resource. In a future with cheap, plentiful battery storage, that might be the answer. But today, the options would be flexible natural gas power, which the TVA already has, or on-the-fly purchases from neighboring electricity markets. TVA’s hydroelectric power could play this role too, ramping up and down in concert with the renewable generation, but about half of this power capacity comes from dams with inflexible navigational and ecological constraints. In the end, to avoid burning more fossil fuels as backup and to minimize dependencies on external markets, a firm power source like nuclear energy better supplies the product that customers need.
Second, the TVA has little experience designing and building renewables projects. Virtually all the wind and solar capacity in the TVA system is owned and operated by merchant generators who sell the output to TVA. A key driver of this situation is TVA’s decades-long ineligibility for federal renewable-energy tax credits. That ineligibility has now been rectified by the Inflation Reduction Act, but the TVA as yet has effectively no experience directly building, marketing and operating these projects.
What TVA does have, however, is experience operating big power plants with big steam turbines and big electrical substations. More than that, it has a skilled, highly unionized workforce that has been working on such equipment for decades. And that workforce sees nuclear in particular as the pathway to good union jobs in a clean industrial future.
In a statement in support of the IRA, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), which represents over 2,000 TVA workers, says the new law allows TVA
to receive federal incentives to expand its investment in green energy with additional nuclear energy power plants and other advanced energy generation and infrastructure. We support these provisions because they create opportunities to advance goals that IFPTE and TVA share: reducing our reliance upon carbon-based energy production, creating good-paying jobs in the TVA region, supporting local economies and businesses, and providing reliable and affordable energy to its ratepayers.
“The transition to a lower carbon emission economy means we need to invest quickly and aggressively in carbon-free nuclear energy,” their statement continues.
TVA management is also on board with new nuclear. Last February, TVA directors ratified a new advanced nuclear program, in which TVA will coordinate with other federal agencies and Canadian public power utility Ontario Power Generation to build a new reactor.
Unfortunately, these talks of new nuclear, from TVA labor and management alike, have been limited to “advanced nuclear” technologies—small modular reactors—that still lie on the horizon, not yet in the present. While it’s undeniably a good plan to pursue such technology, TVA presents an opportunity for American policy to revive the industrial capacity to build conventional nuclear plants.
What Stands in the Way?
TVA has enjoyed strong bipartisan support from area politicians for decades. Attempts by Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump to privatize or break it up were both soundly rejected. But despite that solid base of support, TVA would draw many opponents if it pursued a new National Nuclear Program, and not entirely without reason.
First and foremost, would be the investors and businesses that see it as unfair government competition, or perhaps “creeping socialism.” Even though the IRA opens the door for public power in clean industrial development, the law also solidifies decades of political consensus that it’s the private investors, not government or the TVA, who deserve the power to direct our resources.
Then comes the environmental opposition to nuclear. As recently seen in the closure of New York’s Indian Point and in the (thankfully failed) fight against California’s Diablo Canyon, well-funded and highly litigious environmental groups actively try to stop nuclear power. As they have for decades, many liberal environmentalists insist only on renewable energy for new clean generation capacity.
TVA in particular has drawn the ire of liberals for its sluggishness on deploying renewable generation. Environmental groups and Democratic politicians blast the authority for planning to replace coal plants with natural gas plants rather than with renewables, battery storage, and incentives for residential rooftop solar. Though the feasibility of these opponents’ proposed alternatives seems questionable, TVA’s often tight-lipped rationale hinders outside evaluation.
In a recent Senate hearing on TVA, the progressive Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts had particularly intense words: “You guys figure out nuclear power plants, brag about it, but energy efficiency, wind and solar, eludes the scientists, eludes the management of the TVA. It is kind of disgusting, actually.” The Green New Deal champion, like liberal environmentalist groups, made no mention of TVA’s heretofore ineligibility for crucial federal subsidies.
To be sure, environmental opposition to TVA is not without merits. A history of voracious coal power development more than half a century ago—the technology that made sense for scaling up public power in the 1950s and 1960s—created a difficult, messy legacy for TVA in the present. A 2008 coal ash spill at one of TVA’s plants, along with its mismanaged aftermath, was an environmental disaster and national disgrace, leading to the deaths of dozens of cleanup workers from the toxic, radioactive coal waste. And today TVA faces allegations of environmental racism for its handling of waste from a different legacy coal plant that would, if not relocated, threaten the Memphis, Tennessee water supply. TVA’s decades of accumulated nuclear waste, of course, has remained contained and safe.
The Way Forward
Today is not the 1970s, when nuclear power programs expanded and then came crashing down to earth with the energy crisis. The political call for decarbonization grows more palpable by the day, ensuring a steady demand for new clean electricity for years to come. That’s the logical result of three different concerns, each with its partisans: the climate impact of greenhouse gas emissions, energy security in an increasingly volatile global economy, or strong union jobs and robust domestic supply chains.
With this monumental task at hand, should we place our trust in the investors at the top of the pyramid to invest in what’s socially needed, not just what’s sufficiently profitable to them? That they won’t simply eat up the gains for themselves instead of lowering prices for the masses? The connected experiences of American nuclear and electricity deregulation don’t warrant much hope. Today, skyrocketing bills have left 20 million American homes facing utility shut-offs, while corporate profit margins across the U.S. are at levels not seen since 1950.
To escape the same old game of coaxing private investors to act, we should instead return to the New Deal politics of public power. The recently-passed IRA perpetuates the former at the same time it opens new doors for the latter. In Roosevelt’s original words, “a corporation clothed with the power of Government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise” can directly plan, invest in, and build what we know we need, all for modern living and for clean industry, and all produced at cost, not for profit. The TVA could and should be at the center of it, to kickstart the national decarbonization effort in the American Southeast with revitalized nuclear power.
Instead of only seeing its warts, we should recognize TVA’s enduring strength and potential. In a 1941 exhibit on the New Deal’s crown jewel, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art heralded its achievement: “Look at it, and be proud that you are an American.”