Two decades after suspending construction at the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced Wednesday it wants federal regulators to reinstate a construction permit for the original twin-reactor plant.
TVA officials said they want the permit to study whether the utility should finish the original two reactors at Bellefonte as a possible alternative — or perhaps eventually as a supplement — to its plans to build next-generation reactors at the same site.
“Reinstating the permits now would help TVA clarify the regulatory requirements and continue to evaluate the feasibility of using Units 1 and 2 to meet future base load power demand,” said Ashok S. Bhatnagar, TVA senior vice president of nuclear generation development construction.
But an anti-nuclear leader said TVA’s request to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that the streamlined licensing process and new reactor designs touted by the industry aren’t working as well as originally envisioned.
Two years ago, TVA joined a consortium of nuclear utilities and engineering firms known as NuStart Energy LLC to file a combined operating license request to build two new Westinghouse AP-1000 reactors at Bellefonte. But soaring costs for steel, cement and other materials are raising cost estimates for the new units, officials said.
“It seems to be a sign of trouble with regard to the new process, and this new reactor design after all of the trouble the industry went through to get it approved,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group in Washington, D.C. “It’s a stunning development, and it looks like the AP-1000 project isn’t proceeding expeditiously. It gives the image certainly that they are running into trouble.”
TVA Executive Vice President Bill McCollum said the utility simply is trying to keep its options open in an era of escalating costs for new nuclear plants and for other energy sources. Last week, he declined to give any cost estimate for the new reactor design, although he noted other utilities have quoted prices for similar plants ranging from $5 billion to $12 billion.
Mr. McCollum said no decision has been made to build or complete any Bellefonte units or to add any units beyond completing Unit 2 at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn. But he said power supply studies show that more generation is needed every five to seven years to meet the growing power demand in the Tennessee Valley.
TVA suspended construction of the original Babcock and Wilcox reactors at Bellefonte in 1988 when one unit was estimated to be 88 percent finished and the other reactor reportedly was 58 percent done. But after 18 years of keeping the plant in mothball status, TVA requested the construction permit for those reactors be terminated in 2006.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Ken Clark said the agency never has reinstated a construction permit terminated by a utility.
“We are in the process of evaluating the request to see if the permit can be reinstated or if new permits will be required,” he said.