When the Tennessee Valley Authority voted in 2002 to restart the utility's oldest reactor at its Browns Ferry plant, board members estimated the $1.8 billion repair program could be recovered within six to eight years of plant operations.
Nuclear power critics were skeptical, citing TVA's record of cost overruns on nearly all of its nuclear building and repair projects in the 1970s and the 1980s.
But so far, the restart of Browns Ferry Unit 1 has proven to be one of TVA's best investments.
In less than three years, TVA recovered its investment after the long-idled reactor was repaired and restarted on time and only 5 percent above budget.
That success -- and similar restart programs at other reactors at Browns Ferry during the 1990s -- has spurred new confidence in TVA's nuclear power construction efforts.
"The Browns Ferry experience shows that TVA can complete these projects on time and within budget and the revenues are paying off that investment far faster than what was projected," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate Republican Conference chairman who has championed nuclear power as an energy solution for America.
Sen. Alexander's counterpart in Alabama, Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, said he hopes TVA will finish its two existing units at Bellefonte near Hollywood, Ala., and then add two of the new Westinghouse AP1000 units.
"I want TVA to be a national leader in the nuclear power renewal that is critical for the country," he said. "In the past 10 years, it's been phenomenal how successful TVA's nuclear program has been and it has saved the ratepayers lots of money."
TVA's nuclear power program was not always so reliable, however. In 1985, the utility shut down its entire fleet of nuclear plants when it was unable to meet safety standards adopted after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Repairing and restarting those plants over the next 12 years cost more than $5 billion.
In the 1970s, TVA launched the nation's most ambitious nuclear construction program with plans to build 17 reactors. Only six of those were finished, due largely to slowing power demand and rising construction costs.
TVA is spending $2.5 billion to finish a second reactor at Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn., and then may add more units at its Bellefonte plant.
Ashok Bhatnagar, TVA's senior vice president for new nuclear generation who led the recovery project, said the Browns Ferry unit has operated 90 percent of the time since its restart in 2007 and saved TVA more than $800 million a year compared with the cost of buying comparable power from other generators.
"We're now working on finishing Watts Bar Unit 2, and so far we're on budget and on schedule for completion by 2012," Mr. Bhatnagar said. "There are lessons learned from these units as we move forward."
The Watts Bar construction project now employs more than 2,300 workers in Knoxville and the site near Spring City, Tenn. An even larger project could be next for TVA, if board members agree to try to finish one of the unfinished reactors or build a brand-new type of nuclear unit at Bellefonte.
At Bellefonte, contractors, managed by TVA, are assessing the condition of the plant and what it will take to complete and get an operating license.
If the TVA board agrees next April, TVA could shift many of the engineers and construction crews who worked at Browns Ferry in the past and are at Watts Bar today to Bellefonte by 2013.
"We're taking this one step at a time so that when conditions change we can respond to the market," TVA President Tom Kilgore said.
"Nuclear power is the best possible way in our region to supply large amounts of reliable, low-cost carbon-free electricity. There really is no other option that is as attractive."
-- U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
"The nuclear plants that TVA has brought on line have been exceedingly beneficial for everybody who buys electricity in our region. Bellefonte has tremendous potential to provide a huge source of electricity around the clock with no global warming gases and no pollution."
-- U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Panoramic view of TVA's Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant in Northeast Alabama