Seven years after voting to sell its Bellefonte nuclear plant site, the Tennessee Valley Authority has reversed itself and decided to keep the Jackson County, Alabama, power plant for another potential use.
TVA directors voted Thursday to rescind their 2016 declaration of most of the Bellefonte site as surplus and will retain ownership of one of America's biggest unfinished construction projects. But exactly how TVA will use the 1,400-acre riverfront site is not yet determined.
Matthew Rasmussen, TVA's senior vice president of nuclear engineering and operations support, told the TVA board Thursday that Bellefonte is an attractive site for future power production as TVA seeks to potentially double its generation portfolio in the next three decades.
"Our intention is to preserve this for helping us to meet additional power demand," he said Thursday during a TVA board meeting in Chattanooga. "A recently completed study has determined that the best use for the property in the near term (five years) and long term (10 years) would be new generation and energy storage."
But there are no specific plans yet for the property, Rasmussen said. The two giant cooling towers, the transmission lines and other power facilities in Hollywood, Alabama, make the plant site attractive for other potential power generation or storage facilities, he said.
The decision by TVA to pursue another use for the Bellefonte site is the latest twist in a saga of costly starts, stops and changes at the plant that has already cost TVA more than $6 billion in construction, financing and maintenance costs over the past half century without any power output to show for those efforts.
TVA suspended construction of the plant in 1988 and, after briefly trying to sell the plant to the military for tritium production and then restarting work for a few years in the 1990s, TVA ultimately gave up on the facility.
TVA President Jeff Lyash, who briefly worked at Bellefonte for TVA early in his career installing some of its equipment in 1984, said TVA is now looking at a range of options at the shuttered nuclear facility.
"What's changed is that our load growth and power demand is growing fairly rapidly and land use and permitting is much more difficult," Lyash said in an interview after the board meeting. "If you have an existing site like Bellefonte that has water, transmission, rail and highway access, it's a great asset for future building to support our system needs."
Bellefonte could be a site for new small modular nuclear reactors TVA is looking to build across the Valley, Lyash said, but the TVA president stressed that "we don't go into this with a particular technology in mind."
"It could be energy storage, or solar or an energy or hydrogen complex," he said.
The board action Thursday to potentially develop Bellefonte comes nearly a year after a federal judge upheld TVA's cancellation of the sale of the partially built twin-reactor plant to Chattanooga developer Franklin L. Haney, who wanted to try to complete and operate the original Bellefonte nuclear plant. After agreeing to buy Bellefone for $111 million in fall of 2016, Haney was unsuccessful in obtaining either regulatory approval or financing for the project, which he blamed on TVA's lack of cooperation.
TVA refunded Haney's deposit last year and has continued to maintain minimal security and maintenance at the plant.
The two reactors at Bellefonte were among 17 reactors TVA once planned to build, but only seven of those units were ever completed. TVA previously scrapped plans for nuclear plants in Hartsville and Phipps Bend in Tennessee and at Yellow Creek in Mississippi.
TVA gave up its nuclear construction permit at the plant in 2006, but TVA 2 1/2 years later reversed itself and sought to renew its construction permit when it decided it might need Bellefonte in its power portfolio. Ultimately, the TVA board reversed itself again and voted in May 2016 to abandon Bellefonte and put the plant site up for sale.
Former TVA Preident Bill Johnson said he terminated the sales agreement with Haney in the fall of 2018 because he wasn't sure that Nuclear Development ever could secure the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval for taking over the unfinished plant.
The nuclear plant at Bellefonte "has been dormant for quite a long time" and would be too costly and outdated to try to finish, Lyash said.
"Investing in the last generation of nuclear technology isn't the way to go," Lyash said in an earlier interview.
Rick Habback, mayor of Section, Alabama, just south of the Bellefonte site, said TVA's shutdown of both the former Widows Creek Fossil Plant and the construction of the Bellefonte nuclear plant cut both jobs and tax revenues for local governments in Jackson County.
"I have lived here for 33 years, and every year we keep hearing over and over again that it's going to open, and then it doesn't work out," Habback said in a phone interview. "If it ever opens and produces power, I'll be happy. But I'm afraid that isn't ever going to happen, and I'll believe it when I see it."