TVA to Complete Bellefonte Unit 1

Thirty-six years after work first began at the 1,600-acre site housing the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant in Hollywood, Ala., the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in August said it plans to invest $248 million to maintain the option to complete the 1,260-MW Unit 1 reactor. The announcement was made as the nation’s largest publically owned utility outlined a near-term strategy. Along with designating $900 million for development of nuclear energy in 2011, TVA said it would spend $635 million toward completion of the Watts Bar 2 nuclear reactor, which is on schedule for completion by late 2012. At the same time, the utility proposed to replace 1,000 MW of coal-fired power generation, a mere 3% of its combined capacity, with generation from nuclear and gas plants.

TVA had earlier in the summer said that completing one of two unfinished units at Bellefonte would be preferred over building a new Westinghouse AP1000 reactor there, or taking no action. In a recently issued Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the generation options associated with Bellefonte, the utility said that four of five detailed studies to support a decision by the TVA Board of Directors were complete. The board is expected to provide final approval for the project next year, but TVA’s integration of the unit’s capacity in future plans indicates that the board will greenlight the project—and essentially commit to spending up to $4.7 billion on the reactor. “Construction was halted several years ago, but studies show new generation capacity will be needed by 2020, and nuclear energy provides power generation with no carbon emissions,” the utility recently said.

Work began in 1974 on two 1,260-MW Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactors (Units 1 and 2) at Bellefonte, but construction was halted in 1988—Unit 1 when that reactor was 88% complete and Unit 2 when it was 58% complete—in response to decreased power demand. An estimated $2.5 billion had been spent on the projects (Figure 1).

1. An old flame. The Tennessee Valley Authority in August said it would spend $248 million in 2011 on next steps to complete the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant, some 36 years after work began at the Hollywood, Ala., site. Work began in 1974 but was halted in 1988—when Unit 1 was 88% complete and Unit 2 was 58% complete—in response to decreased power demand. An estimated $2.5 billion had been spent on the projects. If Unit 1 is approved and built as planned, it would go online in 2018. Source: TVA

TVA has considered a variety of options for Bellefonte since then, including, in 2007, using it as the proposed site for two AP1000 reactors—the first in the U.S.—as part of a NuStart Energy Development Consortium application for a new combined construction and operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In 2009, the NRC granted TVA’s request to reinstate Bellefonte’s original construction permits so TVA could better evaluate the engineering and economic feasibility of completing Units 1 and 2. Both units are now being maintained in construction-deferred status.

Ashok Bhatnagar, TVA’s senior vice president of nuclear operations, told reporters in August that a two-year study analyzing whether it would be more feasible to finish the reactor or build a new AP1000 had shown that completion of the original Babcock & Wilcox reactor would be cheaper and faster. This reversal of a 2006 decision by TVA was complicated by rising material and construction costs and considerations of delays in certification of the AP1000, Bhatnagar said. “If you completely risk evaluate the project, it is about $1 billion less to finish the existing unit versus the AP-1000 and there is about a 12-month earlier completion with the existing reactor,” The Chattanooga Times Free Press quoted the official as saying. The utility will “maintain the option” of building the third-generation reactor, but not in the next decade, he said.

If completed, Bellefonte Unit 1 could go online in 2018. But TVA’s new plans won’t go smoothly: They are generating opposition from anti-nuclear groups questioning the reactor’s safety. Critics say that the reactor was not maintained in accordance with NRC regulations after TVA canceled its construction permit in 2006. TVA officials dispute that cannibalizing of the halted projects, including the steam generators and other equipment, jeopardized the project’s reliability. Tests confirmed that Bellefonte Unit 1 was ready to begin engineering, licensing, and equipment procurement, representatives said.

—Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.