What's the future of the abandoned Bellefonte nuclear plant?

TVA's Bellefonte nuclear plant can be seen from Highway 72.

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Comments about the future of Bellefonte should be sent to Sherry Quirk, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Tennessee Valley Authority, 400 West Summit Hill Drive, WT-6, Knoxville, Tennessee 37902-1401 or by email at sherryquirk@tva.gov. Comments also may be submitted on the project website at https://www.tva.com/bellefonte.

What do you do with an unfinished, abandoned nuclear power plant?

The Tennessee Valley Authority is taking suggestions from the public through today about what to do with its Bellefonte nuclear plant in Alabama, which TVA quit building in 1988 but has kept mothballed since.

An online poll from an environmental group long critical of the nuclear plant has offered respondents some whimsical suggestions about using the abandoned 1,600-acre site, which contains two giant, 600-foot-high cooling towers, a massive transmission yard and reactor buildings for twin Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactors that are only about half built.

One suggestion is to turn Bellefonte into an amusement park, similar to the 135-acre Wunderland Kalkar built on the site of a former nuclear power plant north of Dusseldorf, Germany. Thrill-seekers who visit the theme park would be safe from radiation because the Bellefonte plant never went into production and some suggested the cooling towers could be converted into giant climbing walls.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which developed to survey, also suggested that perhaps Bellefonte could be used as a film production set. The plant after all is located in Hollywood, even if that is only the 1,000-resident Alabama version of Hollywood.

Other suggestions offered by the anti-nuclear group include converting the abandoned reactor buildings into condos "for folks that want that post-apocalyptic look" or using the spent fuel pond in the reactor for a a swimming pool that only has a deep end.

"I know it was kind of a tongue in cheek suggestion to turn Bellefonte into an amusement park or shopping center, but for the people of Jackson County that want some type of economic development, I think we should use the land and transmission facilities there for a giant solar farm," said Louis Zeller, executive director for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

After spending more than $5 billion building the Bellefonte units - and hundreds of millions more over the past four decades to maintain and secure the nuclear facility - TVA could be looking for someone to salvage the nuclear plant for power generation, if they had a use for the power that TVA doesn't foresee over the next two decades.

Retired Chattanooga developer Franklin Haney had offered to finish Bellefonte as a private owner, provided TVA would help secure his debt by agreeing to buy some of the Bellefonte-generated power. Haney pursued for more than a decade what he estimated was a $10 billion plan to complete Bellefonte. But he didn't respond to inquiries about his interest today.

The decline in the growth of power demand and the end of federal tax credits for next generation nuclear plants undercut much of the original demand and financial support Haney envisioned when he pitched his idea to purchase Bellefonte four years ago.

In 2013 when he was trying to arrange a plan to acquire and finish Bellefonte, Haney criticized TVA for not trying to work with him to finish the nuclear plant.

"If it's not done, I think people will look back 10 years from now and wonder why they didn't listen to this idea and finish Bellefonte when they could," Haney said at the time.

TVA President Bill Johnson rejected Haney's purchase offer because he said TVA didn't need the power from Bellefonte and he was skeptical of Haney's financial arrangement. But TVA might now entertain another offer from Haney or anyone who wanted to finish the reactor and had a use for its power.

"It's time we answer the question of whether TVA is serving the public well by retaining control of the Bellefonte site, or if others could make more beneficial use of it," Johnson said earlier this year when he began a process that could lead to the disposal of the plant.

TVA has taken comments about the future of Bellefonte for the past month and will develop a plan from such comments to take to the board, probably later this year.

Johnson said TVA is particularly interested to determine whether another party can use the Bellefonte infrastructure for industrial, commercial or residential development. TVA was successful in turning over part of its abandoned Widows Creek Fossil Plant, also in Northeast Alabama, to house a $600 million Google distribution center.

TVA's fiscal 2015 financial statements indicate Bellefonte is worth $1.5 billion, but TVA did not put a sale price tag on the property.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree press.com or at 423-757-6340.