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Tennessee nuclear projects: high-voltage debate; Even in Reagan era, TVA chief is backed on expansion plan

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Blasted by critics as "socialistic" when Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress established it in 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority has been sailing fairly smoothly during the Reagan administration's first six months.

As the nation's largest electrical utility and scheduled to become the nation's largest producer of nuclear power, the TVA might seem an obvious target for an administration determined to minimize the federal role, especially where private industry might operate effectively.

But not so. Thanks in large part to the support of TVA by Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee -- the Senate majority leader and a man of whom President Reagan constantly relies to support his programs -- the TVA in the past few months has:

* Survived budget cut reviews, in the sense of being asked to cut back no more than most federal agencies.

* Survived brief congressional oversight hearings with no recommendations for major changes other than going a little slower on nuclear power plant construction to be certain that the last four of 17 planned reactors are needed.

* Acquired a new chairman who strongly backs completion of the scheduled nuclear plants, though favoring a cutback in some of the other TVA activities such as encouraging use of solar power.

The appointment came as thousands of TVA electric customers were rebeling openly over spiraling electric rates, due mostly to the high cost of financing the nuclear plants. Many consumers were angry over the perceived arrogance of the former TVA chairman, S. David Freeman, a Carter appointee, and his desire to turn the TVA into a national energy "showcase" that featured energy conservation and solar projects.

"I'm not antisolar," the new TVA chairman, Charles H. (Chili) Dean Jr. said in an interview in his corner, 12th- floor office. But he says he believes the "pay back" on many solar projects takes too long, and TVA should pay more attention to its more traditional role of helping develop the Tennesee Valley. He also notes he trimmed 30 percent of the jobs -- mostly by not filling vacancies -- while general manager of the Knoxville Utilities Board, a TVA distributor.

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