The end of an era: TVA gives up construction permit for Bellefonte nuclear plant after 47 years

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Sep. 17—Note: This story was updated Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, at 10 p.m. to correct the location of Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant to Northeast Alabama.

Nearly 47 years after construction began on the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant in Northeast Alabama, the Tennessee Valley Authority is giving up its construction permit for America's biggest unfinished nuclear plant and abandoning any plans to complete the twin-reactor facility.

TVA notified the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week that it would not renew its regulatory permit at Bellefonte after a federal court agreed to cancel the proposed sale of the nuclear plant to an investment group that had hoped to complete the two boiling water reactors and operate the nuclear facility.

Former Chattanooga developer Franklin L. Haney, whose Nuclear Development LLC agreed to buy the Bellefonte plant five years ago, was unable to transfer the construction permit from TVA and a federal judge ruled last month that TVA could cancel the sale of Bellefonte to Haney's group.

Giving up the construction permit at Bellefonte signals the end of any new nuclear plant construction at TVA with only seven of the 17 nuclear reactors the utility once planned to build ever completed.

Although Haney could still appeal the court ruling, TVA is moving to abandon the nuclear generation option at Bellefonte, at least using the two existing units TVA spent more than $5 billion to build over the past half century.

The NRC, which first granted TVA a construction permit for Bellefonte in 1974, is moving to cancel the permit at the end of the month when the current construction permit expires.

"TVA has asked to withdraw its request that would have extended the Bellefonte permits until October 2022," NRC spokesman Scott Purcell said last week. "The staff is processing that request, and absent any additional developments, the permits will expire when this October begins."

TVA has maintained about 30 employees and spent an estimated $5.8 million a year at its Bellefonte plant to preserve the construction permit over the past five years while Haney's group pursued his purchase offer, according to Bellefonte site manager James Chardos.

Burnell said Bellefonte was the last U.S. nuclear plant with a construction permit under the NRC's former two-step licensing process. In 1989, the NRC replaced its construction permit and operating license requirements with a combined single approval process for new nuclear reactors.

Nuclear winter for new plants

Since the 1970s, a total of 95 nuclear reactors proposed to be built by U.S. utilities have been canceled due to rising construction costs, slowing power demand and cheapening power alternatives. The NRC now regulates 93 remaining commercial nuclear reactors at 56 nuclear power plants, including TVA's Sequoyah and Watts Bar nuclear plants in East Tennessee and the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Athens, Alabama. Collectively, those nuclear plants provide more than 40% of TVA's power and over 20% of the nation's electricity supply.

TVA completed the last new commercial nuclear reactor in the United States in 2016 when it began power generation at the Unit 2 reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tennessee more than 40 years after construction first began on the unit.

TVA, which scrapped plans to build nuclear plants at Yellow Creek in Mississippi and Hartville and Phibbs Bend in Tennessee, initially also gave up its construction permit at Bellefonte in 2006. But TVA regained the permit three years later when directors reversed their earlier decision and decided to pursue completion of the two Babcock & Wilcox boiling water reactors, each of which is capable of generating about 1,200 megawatts of power.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said in the past two decades, the growth in power demand in the Tennessee Valley has continued to slow as more energy efficiency measures have been adopted and the price of natural gas, solar power and additional hydroelectric generation has declined in competition with nuclear.

The TVA board declared Bellefonte surplus in May 2016 "and the conditions in the Valley really haven't changed much since for baseload power," Hopson said.

Buying into Bellefonte

Haney sought to use federal tax credits for new nuclear plants and other outside investors to complete Bellefonte, which he estimated could be finished for about $11 billion, or less than half what Georgia Power Co. is spending for similar size nuclear units at its Plant Vogtle in Georgia.

"Our view is that TVA choosing to pull out of the sale is the wrong decision for TVA and its customers for many, many reasons, but there is nothing preventing TVA choosing today to do the deal," Nuclear Development President Bill McCollum said this spring before U.S. District Judge Liles Burke ruled last month that TVA could cancel the sale to Haney's Nuclear Development.

As part of his order, Burke directed TVA to pay $22.9 million, plus interest, to Haney's company to reimburse the down payment Haney paid to TVA for Bellefonte in 2016.

Haney said his goal was "to complete Bellefonte as a state-of-the-art nuclear facility that will provide lots of good jobs, clean energy and economic development to the region." But TVA said the sale was conditioned upon Haney's group securing licensing from the NRC to take over the plant as a nuclear facility.

Haney declined to comment on the court decision last week.

The Chattanooga developer has pursued finishing Bellefonte along with TVA and other partners for the past decade. Five years ago, Haney hired McCollum, a former TVA president, to help head up a team to finish Bellefonte as a nuclear plant.

McCollum approached Memphis Light Gas & Electric about buying power from a reactivated Bellefonte and even urged MLGW to consider alternative power sources to TVA to get cheaper power. The Memphis utility is currently soliciting power proposals to replace TVA as its wholesale provider.

Community gains and losses

In Jackson County, Alabama where Bellefonte is located, local leaders lamented the shutdown of Bellefonte, which comes six years after TVA also shuttered one of its biggest coal-fired power plants at Widows Creek just up the Tennessee River in Stevenson, Alabama.

"It certainly could be good for this entire area to have Bellefonte up and running," Hollywood, Alabama Mayor Jerry Adkins said. "People here would love to see Bellefonte finished and to have all of the jobs it would produce."

Studies by the University of Alabama estimate the completion of Bellefonte could pump more than $50 billion into the local economy over the 60-year life of the nuclear plant. Adkins said studies also suggest Bellefonte could add as many as 5,000 full and part-time jobs and help reverse a net population loss in Jackson County in each of the past two census counts.

"I would love to see TVA do something with Bellefonte," Jackson County Commissioner Jack Venable said. "A lot of people in our community worked at Bellefonte or came here to work at Bellefonte and then stayed. It helped grow our community and it's just a shame to see all of this investment wasted. It hurts to see the decisions that have been made with this plant."

TVA suspended construction at Bellefonte in the 1980s when power demand slowed, but TVA later resumed work on the plant only to then abandon its work on the plant in 2006 and then resume construction three years later. At different times, TVA has estimated the Unit 1 reactor was as much as 90% complete.

Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project for the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear, said that TVA should have given up its construction of Bellefonte decades earlier.

"TVA has had major problems meeting projected costs and timetables for new nuclear plants, as the entire industry has had over the past 50 years," he said. "The inability to meet any budgets for these plants is what has repeatedly been the demise of nuclear energy. Bellefonte is just the most recent failure for this industry."

Gunter noted that of the 30 reactors the industry planned to build 15 years ago with the so-called "nuclear renaissance," only two are still being built. The two new reactors being added at Plant Vogtle by Georgia Power Co. have ended up costing more than twice what was originally forecast and are taking longer to finish than originally projected.

"Nuclear energy is the most expensive way ever conceived to boil water and Bellefonte just shows once again how unreliable this technology really is in terms of projecting what it will cost and how long it will take to build these power plants," Gunter said.

But TVA President Jeff Lyash, a nuclear engineer who previously worked as a senior nuclear operator in nuclear plants and at the NRC, said Bellefonte was based on a 60-year-old design that was never previously tested and no longer makes sense to pursue. But he said other nuclear power technologies should be better.

TVA is working with the U.S. Department of Energy for possible deployment of a small modular reactor in Oak Ridge and Lyash said some of the former coal or nuclear sites TVA still controls could be used in the future for such reactors if they prove effective.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340

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