A federal judge has turned down a request for an expedited hearing on a challenge to a decision by the Tennessee Valley Authority not to sell its unfinished Bellefonte nuclear power plant to Chattanooga developer Franklin L. Haney, granting TVA more time to respond to Haney's claim that TVA improperly canceled the sale.
The court decision marks the latest in a long list of delays in determining the future of one of America's biggest unfinished construction projects which began nearly a half century ago.
U.S. District Court Judge Liles C. Burke ruled last week against holding any expedited hearing on a lawsuit filed in November by Haney's Nuclear Development LLC, which wants to buy the twin-reactor plant in Hollywood, Alabama. Haney was the top bidder two years ago at an auction for the 1,300-acre plant site with a $111 million purchase offer, which Haney said he was prepared to close in November.
But after granting Haney a couple more weeks to finalize some details, TVA informed Haney a few days before the scheduled Nov. 30 closing on the plant sale that TVA could not sell Bellefonte as a nuclear plant unless federal regulators approved the transfer of the deferred construction permit first granted to TVA nearly 45 years ago to start work on the plant.
Nuclear Development LLC filed its application for the transfer with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in November, but the NRC staff is still reviewing the application to ensure that the new owners can adequately comply with the regulatory requirements for building and maintaining a nuclear plant.
To avoid chances of any delay scuttling Haney's plans to try to finish the nuclear plant, Judge Burke ordered that TVA "will satisfy the quality assurance and other requirements in accordance with the two construction permits issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission applicable to units 1 and 2 at the Bellefonte site."
If TVA moves to try to terminate its construction permits or sell the site to another buyer, the utility must give the court at least five days advance notice, Burke said.
Haney, a former Chattanooga-based real estate developer who made a fortune building and leasing government office buildings, roads and other facilities, is trying to become the first individual to own a nuclear plant in the United States. Although TVA said its long-range power projections show it won't need the power that Bellefonte can generate, Haney contends he could finish Bellefonte and generate carbon-free power desired by many power consumers at a price below some existing generation sources cost TVA and other utilities.
As a private owner, Haney could qualify for production tax credits potentially worth more than $2 billion, which TVA could not receive as a government entity.
Haney also has asked the U.S. Department of Energy for loan guarantees on the project of nearly $5 billion. B But DOE has yet to grant that request and one U.S. senator has questioned any DOE loan to Haney after he hired the former personal attorney to President Trump to help lobby for money to complete Bellefonte.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said Friday "the staff continues to work on determining whether the application (from Nuclear Development ) is acceptable for a full review," which typically takes several months. Since Haney wants to try to finish Bellefonte as a nuclear power plant, the construction permit needs to be maintained to ensure that the plant conforms with NRC standards even though TVA suspended most of its work at Bellefonte more than three decades ago.
TVA has maintained the Babcock and Wilcox-designed reactors in a deferred status since 1988 when construction was suspended because TVA determined the power from Bellefonte wouldn't be needed because of a slowdown in the growth of power consumption. TVA now forecasts that its future demand will be steady, or perhaps even declining, negating the need for more baseload power like what Bellefonte would generate.
TVA has already invested more than $5 billion into Bellefonte. At one point, TVA estimated the Unit 1 reactor was about 90 percent complete and the other reactors was about 50 percent finished. But since then, TVA gutted some of the plant equipment and new digital standards have forced other upgrades for new nuclear plants.
Haney contends he could finish the reactors in five to six years, once construction resumes, and has questioned whether TVA wants to scrap his plans to finish the plant because it doesn't want competition from a potentially cheaper source of power in the region.
TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said Friday that TVA "will be filing more formal responses to some of the lawsuits allegations in the coming weeks" and he said the federal utility "will continue to work with the court through these legal proceedings."
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 757-6340