HOLLYWOOD, Ala. -- The blinking red bulbs atop the 500-foot cooling towers have lit up Alabama's Hollywood nights for more than a quarter century.
But the Tennessee Valley Authority's Bellefonte nuclear plant has yet to generate any power for those lights. Since construction began here in 1974, TVA has invested nearly $5 billion to build, preserve and dismantle parts of the unfinished plant.
TVA executives insist they aren't about to give up on the twin-reactor facility, even though the utility initially gave up its construction permit to finish the plant three years ago. After starting to dismantle part of the unfinished plant, the utility reversed course in 2008 and now appears eager to again try to complete the facility if nuclear regulators agree.
While preparing to finish the original plant, TVA also is studying the option of building a totally new reactor that proponents claim is simpler, safer and more economical.
"We're trying to decide whether to finish what we have or start anew," TVA President Tom Kilgore said during a recent tour of the mothballed plant. "We know we are going to need more nuclear power if we are going to meet our goal of getting at least half of our power from clean, carbon-free sources."
The TVA board is scheduled to decide the future of Bellefonte in April when Mr. Kilgore said he expects to recommend whether to finish the Unit 1 reactor, designed by Babcock & Wilcox, or build a whole new reactor designed by Westinghouse Electric Co. Any new reactor at Bellefonte is likely to cost another $4 billion or more to build or finish by 2018 when TVA projects it will need the extra power.
Although TVA suspended construction at Bellefonte in 1988, officials maintain the plant is as good as any ever built by the utility.
"This was one of the best designed and built plants of its time," said Jack Bailey, vice president of nuclear generation development at TVA, who has spent more than a decade evaluating options for Bellefonte. "By the time it comes on line -- if we decide to finish the plant -- it will be more modern than most plants in operation today. The equipment here has never been used and we will be updating, replacing or refurbishing many parts of the plant."
Critics of nuclear power question the wisdom of finishing a plant designed in the 1970s and partially gutted in 2006 and 2007.
"There are just too many questions about a plant this old where TVA once gave up its construction permit," said Louis Zeller, campaign coordinator for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and a member of the Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team, or BEST, that opposes the licensing of Bellefonte. "This has never been done before and we should be very wary about the costs and risks involved."
TVA halted work at Bellefonte when the growth in power demand slowed and construction costs for new nuclear plants soared more than expected.
At the time, TVA estimated the Unit 1 reactor was 88 percent complete. Some former plant workers think it was even closer to being ready.
"At one time, the Unit 1 reactor was probably close to 95 percent complete," said Dr. Robert Doggart, a former senior engineering specialist at Bellefonte who has been in 36 of America's nuclear plants. "We had fewer deficiencies than TVA's other plants, and the records and equipment were well maintained."
TVA idled its Browns Ferry plant in Athens, Ala., and the Sequoyah plant outside Chattanooga and suspended construction at its Watts Bar facility near Spring City, Tenn., in 1985 over safety concerns and regulatory shortfalls. But Bellefonte didn't have such problems.
"The NRC didn't have those same concerns at Bellefonte, and there was a lot of pride among the workers in the quality of what was built here," said Ashok Bhatnagar, senior vice president of nuclear operations at TVA.
As their jobs were phased out, workers signed their names on the entrance wall to Bellefonte where they still are on display.
Scott Patterson, a 54-year-old Scottsboro, Ala., engineer who began his TVA career at Bellefonte in 1980, is one of those who proudly signed his name.
"The more I saw and learned about the way Bellefonte was built, the more astounded I was with how much thought and care went into it," he said. "When you look at the underlying design and all the considerations that were part of this plant, it's really a thing of beauty."
Within the plant, most of the facility is in the same condition as when those workers left in 1988. Inside the completed reactor containment and turbine buildings, most of the plant equipment is still in place, including miles of electrical cable, duct work and pressurized pipes.
TVA did drain the giant spent fuel pond and remove the nuclear fuel from the Unit 1 reactor. The stainless steel frames that hold the nuclear fuel bundles in the emptied spent fuel ponds still sparkle under lights recently added to help in the ongoing review of the plant's condition.
Over the past three years, TVA installed new roofs, fixed bathrooms, replaced lights and laid new carpet in parts of the plant. Before the plant can operate again, TVA also will have to rebuild, refurbish or buy new steam generators, heat condensers and control room equipment. Alstom Power operations in Chattanooga could be involved in part of that work, TVA officials said.
going out of business sale
AT A GLANCE
* Investment so far: $4.6 billion
* Location: 1,600 acres on the Tennessee River in Hollywood, Ala.
* Old design: Twin Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactors
* New design: One or two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors
* Output: About 1,200 megawatts per reactor, or enough power for about 600,000 homes
* Current staff: 80 employees and contractors working on assessment and plant preservation
* Peak employment: 3,000 construction workers in 1985
* Estimated completion cost for existing reactor: $3.5 billion to $4.5 billion for Unit 1
* Estimated construction cost: $4 billion to $5 billion to build a single AP1000 reactor
For nearly two decades, TVA carefully maintained the idled plant by routinely testing pipes and valves and keeping equipment in controlled lay-up status.
By 2006, however, TVA determined that it should pursue a new reactor design at Bellefonte to take advantage of what proponents thought would be a more standardized and less expensive plant.
TVA gave up its construction permit for the original two units at Bellefonte when the plant was chosen to be the reference site for the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor. A consortium of utilities and engineering companies, organized as NuStart Energy LLC, agreed to support preparations for Bellefonte to get the first new combined operating license for the AP1000.
Bellefonte offered the advantages of an already licensed site with water intakes on the Tennessee River, two cooling towers and an electrical switchyard that could be converted for use from the existing reactors to the new AP1000 units.
TVA began cannibalizing the original Bellefonte plant, selling some equipment to other utilities for spare parts and other parts of the plant to salvage companies for scrap metal. TVA transferred $49 million of equipment from Bellefonte to other TVA coal and nuclear plants and sold another $16 million of stainless steel pipes and tubes to scrap metal vendors.
Those same vendors tore down storage warehouses outside the plant and gutted heat condensers and other equipment within the plant.
TVA soon halted the salvage effort, however, when rising prices for construction materials doubled the projected expense of building the new Westinghouse reactors. The federal utility petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2008 to reinstate its construction permit. In February, the NRC voted 3-1 to restore the construction permit, albeit as a canceled plant.
Before TVA may resume any active construction, the NRC must assess Bellefonte and, if approved, TVA must then give the regulators 120-day notice before work starts. NRC inspectors reviewed the plant in November and are preparing a report to TVA, NRC spokesman Roger Hannah said.
Such a restoration of an abandoned construction permit is unprecedented for the NRC. Its current chairman, Gregory Jaczko, objected to such an approach. Mr. Jaczko wanted TVA to apply for a new construction permit because there had been no regulatory oversight of the Bellefonte plant for nearly two years.
Ed Lyman, senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, also thinks TVA should have to get a new construction permit for the original Bellefonte design. Mr. Lyman said a new construction permit would require TVA to meet today's stricter safety standards for new plants, including stronger containment buildings to withstand aircraft attacks similar to those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We don't think it makes sense for any plant to be built today if it doesn't address the threat from an attack like that on 9/11," he said.
Bellefonte supporters note that the containment structure of the Babcock & Wilcox reactors now at the plant is sturdier than most nuclear plants. The reactor containment building is far larger than either Sequoyah or Watts Bar, which helps limit dangerous pressure buildups during a catastrophic accident.
Bellefonte also boasts a dual containment structure around the reactor with a 10-foot space between the walls where workers can easily walk through. The inner containment wall of concrete is more than 3 feet thick, while the outside wall is about 1.5 feet in width.
Bellefonte also meets all of the new seismic and fire safety standards, unlike some plants such as Browns Ferry that were granted some exemptions to such rules, Mr. Bailey said.
Unlike other nuclear plants, Bellefonte also maintained records of its construction layouts and engineering support.
"Numerous outside reviewers have come in, looked at the records and found them not only complete but in good condition," said Jim Chartos, construction and maintenance modifications manager at Bellefonte.
"I think it's fair to say that at the time Bellefonte was built it was the most advanced pressurized water reactor in the United States," Mr. Kilgore said. "A lot has happened in this industry, but this plant is still pretty advanced in a lot of ways and has some of the most robust containment systems of any plant in the country."
Local development officials hope that TVA ultimately will pursue both the original design and the new AP1000. Each of the reactors typically requires more than 2,500 workers to build and will employ 300 to 500 workers per reactor.
"It's a shame to see Bellefonte sit idle," said Goodrich "Dus" Rogers, president the Jackson County Economic Development Authority, which got all 13 municipalities in the county two years ago to pass resolutions in favor of finishing Bellefonte. "We need those jobs and the Tennessee Valley needs this power."