Bellefonte at a glance
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
History: Construction began in 1974 on two Babcock & Wilcox reactors, was suspended in 1988 on original units. Planning began to put a new generation of two new Westinghouse units on the site in 2006, but plans for all four units were scrapped this year due to a slowdown in the growth of power demand in the Tennessee Valley
HOLLYWOOD, Ala. — Frank "Buster" Duke spent a decade as a pipefitter helping to build one of Alabama's biggest construction projects and what was designed to be one of TVA's biggest power plants.
Duke, a TVA retiree who is now mayor of this North Alabama town of fewer than 1,000 residents, is convinced the wiring and piping in the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant is as sound as in any TVA facility and calls Bellefonte "one of the best plants TVA ever built."
But the twin-reactor facility here was never finished, a victim of declining growth in the demand for electricity and the rising costs of building new nuclear power plants to replace aging fossil fuel units.
As he watches the flashing lights atop the twin cooling towers at Bellefonte from his Hollywood City Hall office only a couple of miles away, Duke still hopes someone will finish the plant and generate the power and jobs that Jackson County has long hoped would come from the TVA facility.
"The plant was 90 percent complete when TVA quit building it, and I know they would have to change and update some things, but I sure hope somebody could operate it to make power," he said.
After more than 42 years of starts and stops, TVA is giving up on Bellefonte and putting most of the 1,600-acre riverfront site up for sale. TVA has hired a Marlborough, Mass.-based consulting firm, Concentric Energy Advisors, to help market the sale of Bellefonte for potential use by another power producer or reuse for commercial, residential or recreational uses.
TVA will receive bid proposals from those who might be interested in buying the site this month and plans to pick a winning bid for the sale by the end of October. The initial indicator bids are due Monday.
TVA has set a minimum bid of $36.4 million for Bellefonte — the appraised value of the property. That's only a fraction of the more than $5 billion TVA has invested in the nuclear plant, not including interest and maintenance expenses on the mothballed reactors.
TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said the agency doesn't foresee the need in the foreseeable future for a major baseline power plant like Bellefonte. But he said the power generation facility could be attractive for others to use or redevelop for other purposes.
"This plant is between the Google data center in Bridgeport and the Huntsville megasite (targeted for automobile or major manufacturing development), so we think there is a lot of potential for a site like this," Fiedler told reporters during a tour Wednesday of Bellefonte to help promote its sale. "We'll be going through a bid process, but the interest has been very impressive so far and we're excited about selling the property."
But even as TVA touts its unfinished nuclear plant and hosts tours from prospective buyers, a seemingly ominous sight lurked Wednesday inside of one of the 480-foot-high cooling towers. Nearly a dozen turkey vultures circled and descended into the giant hyperbolic-shaped structures as if they were hovering over a dying carcass.
Jim Chardos, the site director at Bellefonte who has been here for the past 22 years, said he had hoped one day to see Bellefonte finished and producing power as a nuclear plant.
"But we realize that facts are facts and you can't produce what you can't sell," he said. "What we want most are jobs for this region."
TVA employed thousands of workers to build Bellefonte in the 1970s and hired hundreds of contractors again in 2011 when the TVA board briefly considered finishing the reactors.
But by 2014, TVA had again given up on finishing Bellefonte, which experts estimated would cost more than $8 billion to complete.
TVA spends about $6.5 million a year to maintain the plant with about 45 employees and contractors, but there is not the demand for the power it could generate, according to TVA's long-range power studies.
"Even though we're seeing strong economic growth in the [Tennessee] Valley, the demand for electricity isn't growing like it did in the past, and our integrated resource plan doesn't foresee the need for baseline power generation like what Bellefonte produces anytime in the foreseeable future," Fiedler said. "We have to manage this facility for what is good for the Valley, and that is best served by putting this property back in play to drive economic development for the Valley."
The federal utility, which began building Bellefonte in 1974 when power demand in the Tennessee Valley was growing by more than 5 percent a year, never finished the twin-reactor complex because of a slowdown in electricity consumption in TVA's seven-state region. TVA suspended construction in 1988 and at one point considered abandoning the original Babcock and Wilcox units and converting the plant site for use with all-new, next-generation Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors.
TVA later resurrected work on the original units, even building a model of a new digital reactor control room to replace the analogue-controlled system erected three decades earlier.
But TVA has now given up on any of those reactors, although it is eager to sell to anyone who might resurrect the plant or convert it to another job-generator for Northeast Alabama.
Carrie O'Neil, senior project manager for Concentric Energy Advisors, said her firm has worked to help sell other nuclear power plants.
Last month, Entergy Corp. sold its James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in central New York to Exelon Generation for $110 million. Entergy, the second-largest nuclear power plant operator in the country, had previously announced it would close the plant this year.
But the sale of an unfinished nuclear plant like Bellefonte in a region without much demand for new power could prove more difficult and is unlikely to produce similar offers to an operating plant, even one nearing the end of its useful life.
TVA previously transferred the sites of canceled nuclear plants at Yellow Creek in Mississippi to a state development agency and at Phipps Bend in Tennessee to a Hawkins County economic development group for an industrial park.
The TVA board voted in May to declare the Bellefonte nuclear plant surplus and sell Bellefonte through a federal bidding process because of the billions of dollars TVA has invested in the facility.
"We have indicative bids coming in by 11 a.m. Monday, and after that we'll have a little bit more information on the market," O'Neil said. "But there is some interest out there, so once the bids come in we'll work out how the next step in the process works."
TVA is interested in both the price any buyer would pay for the property and the potential for economic benefits from the buyer to Jackson County, Ala., which has suffered by the idling of the Bellefonte plant here two years ago and the closing of the Widows Creek Fossil Plant near Stevenson, Ala., last year.
TVA isn't disclosing the names of interested bidders for Bellefonte. But one company already offered $38 million to buy the site back in May, three months before TVA even began soliciting bids.
Phoenix Energy of Nevada LLC, which was formed five years ago to develop a unique new type of power using inductive power generation, submitted the first bid this spring, which TVA said was submitted too early and without adequate documentation. The company is now preparing another offer and trying to make sure it has the financial backing to make a viable offer to TVA.
Michael Dooley, managing partner for the Carson City, Nev., company developing the new power plant design, said Phoenix Energy should be successful even though it is pursuing a new type of still-untested energy generation for the site.
"Phoenix Energy is definitely committed to submitting the winning purchase bid and acquiring this TVA Bellefonte property," Dooley said in an email. "For us, Phoenix Energy, and our plans, this is a once in a lifetime, maybe even two lifetimes, very special and unique opportunity, an opportunity not to be missed, which will positively impact, change and improve the energy, economic and environmental future for the United States."
Former Chattanooga developer Franklin Haney also proposed buying the unfinished Bellefonte plant nearly a decade ago, provided TVA would lease back the facility or guarantee the purchase of some or all of the power the plant would generate if it was finished. Haney, as a private developer, was trying to qualify for $2 billion of federal production tax credits for next generation nuclear power that TVA as a federal utility would not be eligible to receive.
Haney, a 76-year-old attorney who retired to South Florida, teamed up four years ago 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 of Bellefonte. But TVA President Bill Johnson ultimately rejected Haney's offer because TVA didn't need the power from Bellefonte.
Haney has declined comment on whether he may submit another offer for Bellefonte.
Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340.
This story was updated to correct a spelling error.