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TVA's Bellefonte nuclear plant can be seen from Highway 72.
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TVA President Bill Johnson smiles during the TVA board meeting Thursday, February 11, 2016 in the TVA Chattanooga Office Complex.

BELLEFONTE NUCLEAR PLANT

Location: 1,600 acres between Highway 72 and the Tennessee River in Hollywood, Ala.

Investment: More than $5 billion, excluding most interest and maintenance expenses incurred over the past decade and a half.

Remaining debt: Most of the investment has already been written off, but $1.3 billion remains on the TVA books

What is on the site: Two unfinished Babcock and Wilcox pressurized water reactors, plus two cooling towers, switchyard, transmission lines and training facility and offices

Current staff: 90 contract and TVA workers maintain and secure the site

History: Construction began in 1974, was suspended in 1988 on original units. Planning began to put a new generation of Westinghouse units on the site in 2006, but that was canceled last week.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

TVA is inviting public comments on whether it should sell Bellefonte until March 18. Email comments may be sent to sherryquirk@tva.gov. Written comments should be sent to Sherry Quirk, executive vice president and general counsel, Tennessee Valley Authority, 400 West Summit Hill Drive, WT-6, Knoxville, TN 37902-1401.

After more than 42 years of construction starts and stops, the Tennessee Valley Authority appears ready to pull the plug on its Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant in Alabama.

TVA said Wednesday it is considering declaring the unfinished twin-reactor complex surplus so it can sell the property to another party that might either resurrect the two mothballed reactors or use the 1,600-acre riverfront site for another use.

TVA has invested more than $5 billion in building Bellefonte — plus hundreds of millions more in interest and maintenance expenses — since construction began in 1974. The project is the biggest unfinished construction project in Alabama history. It was the last commercial nuclear plant still being pursued from among those launched a generation ago before accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Fukushima in Japan forced costly redesigns of new nuclear plants.

TVA President Bill Johnson said a new long-range power study last year projected TVA won't need the power any Bellefonte reactor could produce for at least 20 more years.

"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 Wednesday. "And with economic development as a cornerstone of our mission, TVA wants to know if there is an entity interested in investing and creating jobs at this location."

TVA employed thousands of construction workers in the 1970s and 1980s at Bellefonte before work was suspended on Unit 2 in 1985, when TVA projected it was 58 percent complete. TVA later suspended work on Unit 2 in 1988; the utility estimated that reactor was 88 percent built.

As technology and regulations changed and the growth in power demand slowed, TVA determined it didn't need the power from the plants, especially as the costs of completing Bellefonte rose. But with so much invested in the units, TVA has been reluctant to walk away from the complex, which includes two reactor buildings, two cooling towers, a switchyard, a helicopter landing pad, a training facility and connections to TVA's transmission network.

After unsuccessfully trying to transfer the plant to the U.S. Department of Energy to make bomb material and inviting other utilities to buy or share ownership, TVA ultimately decided in 2006 to give up on the original Babcock and Wilcox-designed reactors at Bellefonte. At that time, TVA began to pursue converting the plant to new, next-generation reactors designed as Westinghouse AP1000 units, similar to what is being built now in Georgia and South Carolina. But last week, TVA officially abandoned the licensed applications for those units.

Garry Morgan, an anti-nuclear activist who lives near the plant in Scottsboro, Ala., said Bellefonte "is like a zombie plant that never dies," but he urged TVA last week to give up on the project.

"We don't need it, and TVA can't afford to finish it," he told the agency's board during a meeting in Chattanooga.

TVA has written off most of its investment in Bellefonte, but the utility listed the Bellefonte assets to be worth $1.3 billion on TVA's books at the end of fiscal 2015. TVA spokeswoman Gail Rymer said the utility has not set a price tag on any sale of Bellefonte.

Under federal rules, TVA's board could declare the property surplus after hearing public comments and the agency could then put the property up for sale. A public comment period begins today and will run through March 18 for people to comment on a possible sale of the plant.

"As we consider this decision, it is important that we hear from interested stakeholders, potential site developers and the general public," Johnson said.

One potential buyer, at least over most of the past decade, is former Chattanooga developer Franklin L Haney. The 75-year-old attorney estimated two years ago that a public-private partnership with TVA and an investment group he was organizing could finish both of the Bellefonte reactors for about $10 billion more. That would only be about half the projected cost of building similar-sized nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle by Georgia Power, where construction of the two new reactors is about 60 percent complete.

Three years ago, Haney teamed up with former TVA Chairman Dennis Bottorff and TVA's former chief operating officer, Bill McCollum, to pitch a unique type of lease-back arrangement to finance completion at Bellefonte.

But at the time, Haney was trying to take advantage of $2 billion of federal tax credits then available, and he claimed there would be a need for the extra power to replace coal plants TVA is shutting down. But TVA decided instead to build natural gas plants to take advantage of the drop in gas prices, and the nuclear building credits are no longer available for more new units.

Haney and Bottorff could not be reached Wednesday. But in late 2013, Haney insisted finishing Bellefonte made sense and he had interested investors willing to fund the work.

"I'm from the Tennessee Valley and I've looked at this closely, and I know those who don't think this will work are wrong," Haney told the Times Free Press in December 2013.

Anti-nuclear activists insist Bellefonte should never be finished as a nuclear plant since its design was from the 1960s and the only other Babcock and Wilcox reactor of its type shut down in Germany. Some of the equipment from Bellefonte also was removed a decade ago when TVA began cannibalizing the original design in favor of the new Westinghouse model.

"If someone is reckless enough to acquire the site and attempt to complete the Bellefonte 1 and 2 reactors with the existing, antiquated reactor design, we will aggressively oppose their efforts," Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said.

Dus Rogers, executive director for the Jackson County Economic Development Authority and chairman of the TVA Regional Energy Resource Council, said he is eager to try to recruit other uses for Bellefonte.

Last year, Google said it would construct a $600 million data center at the site of a former coal-fired electricity plant operated by TVA about 20 miles from Bellefonte at the former Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Jackson County near Stevenson.

"We would love to see it finished or used in some way to make electricity," Rogers said last week. "But I am a realist, and right now, TVA can't afford to finish Bellefonte."

Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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