HOLLYWOOD, Ala. - When TVA canceled plans to finish its Bellefonte Nuclear Plant here in 2006, contractors began ripping out steel tubes and pipes from heat exchangers, steam generators and main condensers to sell for scrap metal.
The salvage effort proved to be short-lived.
Critics also claim it was shortsighted and could leave ratepayers short-changed.
TVA officials say they are trying to adapt to a shifting energy landscape by twice reversing their approach to America's costliest unfinished power plant. After investing $4.2 billion in the Bellefonte plan, TVA has mothballed, canceled and then revived its construction plans over the past decade.
"The world has changed," TVA Vice President Jack Bailey said. "The cost of new baseload generation more than doubled in price in the past three years ... so we decided to take another look at whether we should finish Bellefonte."
TVA has taken numerous such looks over a 35-year history of starts and stops at Bellefonte.
The federal utility halted construction of Bellefonte in the 1980s when the growth in power demand slowed and the cost of building nuclear plants rose. TVA maintained Bellefonte in an idled status for nearly two decades before finally deciding in 2006 it was too expensive and risky to finish.
TVA determined it probably could build a whole new plant for the same or less money, Mr. Bailey said.
But TVA is rethinking that approach since the projected costs have nearly doubled for the new plant design for the site - a Westinghouse Corp.-built AP-1000 reactor being developed by a consortium of utilities known as NuStart Energy LLC.
In February, TVA convinced federal regulators to reinstate the construction permit for the original Bellefonte plant even though some of the plant equipment was removed three years ago.
TVA Senior Vice President Ashok S. Bhatnagar said the reinstated construction permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission clears the way for TVA to begin an assessment on whether the utility should finish the original reactors at Bellefonte or build a pair of next-generation reactors at the same site. Ultimately, TVA could try to build some, or all, of four reactors at Bellefonte.
"Having this permit in place provides us a starting point for evaluating all of our options," Mr. Bhatnagar said.
But TVA's shifting approach at Bellefonte has drawn fire from both supporters and opponents of nuclear power. The unprecedented reinstatement of Bellefonte's construction permit also divided NRC commissioners last month.
Anti-nuclear activists object to TVA building any more reactors.
Louis Zeller, nuclear campaign coordinator for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said the hydrology and water are inadequate to support any reactors at Bellefonte. He vows to fight plans to either finish the original plant or build the new AP-1000 reactors at the site.
"There are serious safety questions about this site," he said. "If you try to finish the old reactors, you just don't know how much of that plant is usable and how much is beyond repair and is outdated. The new AP-1000 design is an unproven technology."
Supporters of nuclear power insist Bellefonte can be a reliable source of power but question TVA's on-and-off approach to building the plant.
Dr. Bob Doggart, a former senior engineering specialist at TVA who now serves as the managing lead assessor for the British Institute of Nondestructive Testing LLC, has long argued for TVA to finish at least the Unit 1 reactor at Bellefonte.
"We spent more than $4 billion of the ratepayers' money on what I think is one of the best designed and built nuclear plants in America," he said. "To allow outsiders to come in and remove key equipment for virtually nothing was unbelievably foolish."
Dr. Doggart previously estimated that the Unit 1 reactor at Bellefonte could have been finished in a couple of years for no more than $400 million, although other TVA estimates were far higher.
But replacing the steam generators, heat condensers and other systems gutted when TVA tried to scrap the plant could add hundreds of millions of dollars to any completion cost, TVA officials concede. Mr. Bhatnagar said TVA transferred $49 million of equipment from Bellefonte to other TVA fossil and nuclear plants and sold another $16 million of stainless steel pipes and tubes to scrap vendors.
The revival of a canceled nuclear plant would be unprecedented in U.S. history.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 3-1 in February to reactivate the construction permit for Bellefonte that TVA gave up in 2006. But the new permit is only for a "terminated plant," and TVA will have to re-establish some programs before the NRC permit could be upgraded to allow any actual construction to begin.
Even granting the terminated plant construction permit was opposed by NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko.
Bellefonte starts and stops
* 1974 - Construction permit issued and building begins
* 1985 - Construction halted on Unit 2, then 55 percent complete
* 1988 - Construction halted on Unit 1, then 88 percent complete
* 1992 - Engineering work resumed to prepare for restart of construction
* 1994 - Stone & Webster estimates finishing Bellefonte will cost $2.6 billion. Engineering work halted
* 1996 - TVA studies option of converting plant to combined-cycle, natural gas
* 1998 - Gas conversion option dropped. TVA offers plant to the Department of Energy to make bomb-grade tritium.
* 1998 - DOE picks existing TVA plants to produce tritium.
* 2001 - Texaco proposes using Bellefonte as site for coal gasification plant.
* 2001 - Chattanooga financier Franklin Haney offers to finance completion of Bellefonte as a nuclear plant.
* 2002 - Texaco drops proposal. TVA turns down Haney offer.
* 2004 - TVA enters into talks with other utilities and joins NuStart to pursue new plant design for site.
* 2005 - NuStart picks Bellefonte as site for Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear plant. TVA withdraws construction permit for original plant.
* 2006 - NuStart to prepare licensing permit and engineering design for new plant
* 2006 - TVA sells stainless steel tubing, pipes at Bellefonte for scrap metal. Other equipment transferred to other plants
* 2008 - TVA decides to consider reviving Bellefonte units 1 and 2
* 2009 - Nuclear Regulatory Commission reinstates construction for original reactors in terminated status
* 2010 - TVA to conduct engineering scoping studies and likely decide which, if any, reactors to build
* 2011 - If approved and financed, construction work on new plant could begin.
* 2018-2020 - New plant could begin power generation.
Sources: Tennessee Valley Authority, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
In his dissent, Mr. Jaczko noted that Bellefonte hasn't been under any oversight or rules since the construction permit was withdrawn.
"To say that a withdrawal does not matter is saying that not having a permit for over two years is the same as having had a permit for those two years," he said. "A regulatory agency should, at a minimum, defend its regulations and the need for them."
TVA plans to spend $15 million in the current fiscal year to try to prepare for the next step at Bellefonte. If the TVA board decides to proceed, the utility could spend far more next year to do a more detailed engineering analysis of the plant, Mr. Bhatnagar said.
Even with some of the equipment removed, the Bellefonte plant appears to be largely complete from a physical standpoint. The cooling towers, office and turbine buildings and reactor containment building were all finished in the 1980s and most of the key plant components are already in place, including most of the control room equipment.
But other than the diesel generators used to produce backup power, Bellefonte has never generated any electricity. The turbine building is so old that TVA now is having to put a new roof on the facility as part of its normal maintenance.
Jim Chardos, the site manager who has worked most of the past decade at Bellefonte, said most of the plant equipment is still new and the structure is sound and well documented. Some electrical equipment remains energized to maintain its reliability.
Unlike the recovery and completion programs at Sequoyah and Watts Bar, TVA appears to have maintained better engineering records at Bellefonte.
With two thick concrete walls, Bellefonte's reactor containment building also is as secure as any nuclear plant in the country, Mr. Bailey said.
When TVA halted construction of the Unit 2 reactor at Bellefonte in 1985, the unit was considered to be 58 percent complete. Three years later when work ceased on the Unit 1 reactor, TVA estimated that unit was 88 percent complete.
Mr. Bhatnagar now estimates the units are probably only about half complete since some of the original equipment would now have to be replaced or upgraded to meet today's standards.
Neighbors to the 1,600-acre nuclear site said they are eager to see something come of TVA's investment.
Goodrich "Dus" Rogers, president of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority, said the plant has been like a roller coaster of ups and downs over the past three decades.
"But I think the community overall here is supportive of nuclear power and wants the jobs that this plant would create," he said.
Construction of Bellefonte is expected to create more than 2,000 temporary jobs and a twin-reactor plant would employ more than 1,000 full-time TVA workers.
"We want Bellefonte built, either the original plant, the new plant or both," he said.