It’s been 30 years since the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) called a halt to construction of the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant in Alabama. Details of a deal to finish the plant and its two Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactors were announced at a news conference near the idled project July 30.
Business executives and government officials discussed the strategy for finishing Bellefonte on Monday in Hollywood, Alabama, saying plans are in place to move forward. A final decision must be made by November to meet a two-year deadline set when TVA sold the site at auction in 2016.
TVA began building the plant in 1974. Construction was halted in 1988 amid a downturn in the U.S. nuclear industry, including a decision that the plant was not needed due to declining power demand. The 1,300-acre Bellefonte site has plenty of equipment—including two partly-built reactors, cooling towers, water pumping stations, switch yards, warehouses, office buildings, parking lots, a helicopter landing pad, and railroad spurs—still in place.
TVA in 2010 said it would complete one reactor at the site, saying it would invest $248 million to maintain the option to complete the 1,260-MW Unit 1 reactor. But TVA officially indefinitely delayed the project in 2013, then put the site up for sale in May 2016. It was bought by Nuclear Development LLC, an investment group headed by Chattanooga, Tennessee-based developer Franklin L. Haney, in November of that year for $111 million. Haney, who paid TVA $22 million at that time and has until November to complete the purchase, had reportedly wanted to purchase the site from TVA for several years with an eye toward finishing the project.
“For many years, I have been committed to the Tennessee Valley, having invested billions of dollars in a region that continues to outpace the rest of the country in terms of job creation and economic growth,” Haney said Monday. “I’m excited to announce that the finest team of nuclear engineers will take over the project and bring Bellefonte to a long-awaited completion.”
Canadian Firm Hired to Finish Construction
Haney, who said he has pursued production tax credits to help make continued construction financially viable, has hired Montreal, Canada-based construction and design firm SNC-Lavalin to complete the plant. Haney’s group has estimated finishing the plant will cost $12 billion, making the project the largest private industrial investment in Alabama history.
Preston Swafford, SNC-Lavalin’s president and chief nuclear officer, at Monday’s news conference said, “Ninety-five percent of the plant was done at one time. Nuclear fuel was on site and ready to be loaded into the reactor. As we looked at the existing structures and designs it became apparent that plant needs to be completed as originally designed and we need to implement most of what was already approved.” Swafford said about 20% of the plant’s design needs to be updated to meet current industry standards.
Local officials in Alabama are excited about the prospect of completing the plant. Shelia Shepard, vice president of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority, on Monday said, “Since purchasing Bellefonte Nuclear Plant two years ago, Nuclear Development LLC has made significant progress. They’ve assembled an investment team, developed a business plan and obtained all of the nuclear production tax credits necessary.”
Nuclear Opponents Criticize Plant
Groups opposed to nuclear power have used the examples of other recent U.S. nuclear projects, including the oft-delayed construction of two AP1000 reactors at the Vogtle site in Georgia, and the scuttled V.C. Summer project in South Carolina, as proof there is no need to finish Bellefonte. Some critics say the plant has been compromised by the removal of equipment such as steam generators, and contend the plant’s safety systems have been comprised.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the site was “cannibalized for parts in 2006,” and said “We are seriously concerned about the safety of reviving … nuclear construction that has experienced lapses in maintenance and visits from demolition crews untrained in nuclear safety.”
Stephen Smith, SACE’s executive director, said, “We don’t believe that Bellefonte could ever meet the safety standards that the NRC would require because it was put outside of the nuclear quality and assurance standards and we’ve seen no credible program to bring it back into those requirements.”
TVA sold some of the parts and components from the plant as the utility tried to recoup some of its investment. Swafford said many of the original systems and components remain, and he said Nuclear Development Group and SNC-Lavalin have jointly cataloged the site and assessed its infrastructure.
“Our strategy is to finish and issue the design for a fixed price to multiple players and let them have rein to assess the problems and create innovative ideas to compete in pricing,” Swafford said. He said prospective vendors would have access to the site to determine what components or systems might need to be upgraded or replaced. “Seventy to 80 percent of the project is quantifiable based on materials, so it behooves the vendors to innovate and be competitive. They have skin in the game,” he said.
Jobs, Dollars Touted by Local Officials
Among the details announced Monday: five to six years of construction to complete the plant, bringing 8,000 to 10,000 jobs to north Alabama. A recent University of Alabama economic study said the plant would generate $2.4 billion in state and local taxes during the construction phase, with an estimated $6.6 billion in tax revenues during the operation phase.
“According to a University of Alabama economic impact analysis, the completion of Bellefonte would generate $12.6 billion in economic output,” said Shepard. “Significant economic development opportunities like Bellefonte don’t just happen as a result of a single person’s efforts. Rather, this project is a culmination of years of hard work by a team of dedicated professionals that include investors, nuclear industry leaders and public officials.”
TVA has said it invested more than $4 billion in Bellefonte before ending the project. The utility has said it would not need power from Bellefonte, at least in the foreseeable future.
Haney said he has groups interested in power purchase agreements for the output of the Unit 1 reactor, though he did not name them. He said he is trying to find buyers from power output from Unit 2. He said his group can finish construction at a cost that would make the nuclear generation cheaper than other power sources and save as much as $500 million annually for power purchasers.
Swafford said: “The impetus to complete the Bellefonte plant signifies that nuclear power has regained interest as an energy source that is necessary as part of the overall energy portfolio in the U.S.”
—Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).