75 years ago – TVA and BPA Power Helped Win a Very Different War

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During his whistle-stop campaign tour in 1948, President Harry Truman spoke to a rally in Pocatello, Idaho noting  “Without Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams it would have been almost impossible to win this war [World War II].”  And in his final days, Senator George Norris (R–Nebraska) the father of the Rural Electrification Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – remarked about the role TVA played in winning the war by saying “I have been everlastingly proud of the great contributions TVA has made, which cannot be fully revealed until peace returns to a tortured world.”


As the U.S. manufacturing base responds to our first responders’ needs for personal protection equipment and the acute shortage of ventilators afflicting so many hospitals, Energy Fairness takes a look back at the herculean role that the TVA and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) hydropower systems played in delivering the raw reliable power needed to build the weapons that vanquished Germany and Japan during World War II.


Before World War II the city of Hanford was a remote high desert town in the southeast corner of Washington and Oak Ridge – in the eastern Tennessee woodlands — didn’t even exist. By 1945 these two communities – along with Los Alamos, New Mexico — would be inextricably linked through membership in an elite club of communities — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Manhattan District.  


In January 1943 – barely a year after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor – the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) secretly acquired 670 square miles of land near Hanford. Immediately following this acquisition was a request from the AEC to build a series of high voltage transmission lines from the massive Grand Coulee Dam to this mysterious new site to deliver the exorbitant amount of electricity needed to power the activities of this so-called “mystery load.” The “mystery load” was the Hanford Reservation. Its series of reactors produced the plutonium used in the 2nd atomic bomb — “Fat Man” — dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945. 


Shortly before the Federal government covertly acquired land in the Washington High Dessert, it was secretly acquiring land along the Clinch River 20 miles west of Knoxville. Within months — 30,000 employees would populate the newly created town of Oak Ridge and the enriched uranium produced at its facilities would be used in the first atomic “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.


While TVA and BPA power were pivotal in the production of the enriched uranium and plutonium needed to fuel the unconventional weapons used to end the war, it also was invaluable in producing the many bombers and ships – conventional weapons — needed to push back on the Axis Powers in Europe and the Pacific.  


Testifying before Congress in 1935, the Chairman of TVA, Arthur Morgan, aptly noted: “an adequate supply of electric energy comes pretty close to being a matter of national defense.” He was right! Power from the BPA and TVA systems was essential in producing the aluminum used in the bombers and ships needed to bring the Allies to victory in 1945.  


By end of the war, hydropower from the BPA system helped Northwest shipyards produce 27% of the American fleet. And, the TVA system produced so much electricity used in bomber production that it adopted the slogan “Out of water power comes air power.” 


Just over 75 years ago –with the invaluable contribution of BPA and TVA hydropower — American manufacturing might rose to the challenge to beat a very visible enemy. Today we are facing a different kind of enemy. But just like we did in World War II…the full force of our manufacturing and innovative might will ultimately vanquish this enemy too.