TVA looking again to complete Bellefonte Nuclear Plant

photo Tennessee Valley Authority President and CEO Tom Kilgore, left, talks before a tour of the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Ala., as Ray Hruby listens. The TVA staff plans to ask the TVA board of directors to approve the refurbishing and starting of the plant.

HOLLYWOOD, Ala.-Pinched by federal clean air regulations and expected rising customer demand, TVA again is planning to complete its idled Bellefonte Nuclear Plant.

Tennessee Valley Authority President and CEO Tom Kilgore said Thursday that he will ask the utility's board of directors in August to OK completing a partially built nuclear reactor at the plant near Scottsboro, Ala.

"Bellefonte is a good asset that needs to be finished," Kilgore said. "I believe it is the right thing to do. ... We're going to refurbish every single valve and make this a state-of-the-art plant. We submitted a plan to the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] earlier this year."

But the utility, which also is closing about half of its coal-fired plants in an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, likely couldn't have chosen a tougher time for NRC's or the public's nuclear scrutiny.

The world has been watching the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, and the local public has been watching TVA's other nuclear plants have problem after problem recently with unexpected shutdowns caused by both faulty equipment and by disastrous weather.

Bellefonte's reactor design is a controversial one that has only a one-year track record in Germany before the plant there was mothballed because of problems. Add to that, the age of Bellefonte and its unfinished reactors: Construction began in 1974.

Work was suspended in 1988, with TVA citing declining growth in power demand, as well as construction engineers stretched too thin working on too many TVA reactors all at once. When the plant was mothballed, the Unit 1 reactor was considered 90 percent complete and Unit 2 was half done.

Today Unit 1, which TVA wants now to complete, is thought to be only about 50 percent finished because some parts over the years have been cannibalized for salvage sale and other parts - such as the valves - must be replaced or refurbished.

The utility already has spent about $4.1 billion on the plant. Kilgore said the additional estimated cost for finishing it "is in the $4 billion to $5 billion range."

Kilgore told reporters touring Bellefonte on Thursday that although some other utilities are backing away from nuclear power, he is comfortable to push ahead without waiting for the final findings on Japan's disaster.

"If we wait, we won't hit the demand curve, and not using this plant would be a lost opportunity," Kilgore said.

He said the U.S. needs to be free from dependence on foreign oil, and one expectation for that is with electric cars.

"Time will tell if people will call us visionaries," he said. "But if we're going to talk about energy and electric policy, we've got to think bigger than just the customer demands we have now."

TVA nuclear critic Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, has called TVA's plan to complete and begin operating the plant that was started in 1974 "the Ford Pinto" of nuclear plants.

"We are disappointed by that decision," Smith said Thursday. "By the time this reactor goes online, it will be approaching 50 years old, and there's not a lot of history with this design. Only four were built and only one operated for a very short time. TVA's not made the case for rushing this. We hope the board will call for more investigation."

Kilgore and Bellefonte Plant General Manager Ray Hruby disagree with Smith.

Hruby said Bellefonte's new refit design would withstand an 8.9 earthquake. The largest recorded in the region has been a 4.7. Kilgore said the plant also is designed to take the hit of an EF5 tornado.

"I grew up near here, and I want the plant to be safe, and I believe it will be," Kilgore said. "I believe it will be the best nuclear plant TVA has."