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ATHENS, Ala. -- The Tennessee Valley Authority will spend up to $160 million here over the next three years, trying to stay out of hot water at its biggest nuclear power plant.

TVA Chief Operating Officer Bill McCollum Jr. said the federal utility will add another cooling tower and expand four of the six existing towers to better cool water from the Tennessee River that's used for power generation at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant.

The work should be done by 2013, TVA officials said.

TVA rejected a similar proposal in 2005 when officials projected that the extra cooling capacity was not needed to keep the river within thermal limits set by state regulators. But hot weather forced TVA to limit Browns Ferry generation during two of the past four summers when river water temperatures approached allowable limits.

TVA estimates it lost more than $50 million of power generation this summer alone, leading the agency to invest in more cooling capacity.

"This will gives us the flexibility to use the cooling towers during the hottest parts of the summer in order to reduce the thermal impact on the river," McCollum told the TVA board at a meeting Thursday in Athens.

TVA had to scale back power generation during most of July and August this year when the water drawn from the Tennessee River at Browns Ferry got too hot and threatened to exceed thermal standards.

Unlike TVA's other nuclear plants, which use giant draft-air towers to cool water heated during plant operations, TVA uses smaller forced-air cooling towers at Browns Ferry. The smaller and older cooling devices are not as efficient, but McCollum said building new, larger cooling towers was deemed too expensive and impractical for the layout of the Browns Ferry site.

TVA President Tom Kilgore acknowledged that the utility should have upgraded its cooling devices at Browns Ferry when TVA revamped all three of its reactors from 1985 through 2006.

"This was studied back in 2005, and I asked the question ... if we needed more cooling capacity," Kilgore said. "I was assured we would need extra capacity only once every 20 or 25 years when it was really hot. Our experience has shown that wrong because we've had to 'derate' (reduce power generation) at the plant twice in the past four years."

Kilgore said this past summer was the hottest of any summer since TVA began keeping temperature records.

Just three hot summers will pay the expense of the extra cooling capacity, Kilgore said.

TVA Director Marilyn Brown, one of three new directors participating in their first TVA board meeting on Thursday, urged TVA staff to study the latest cooling technologies to ensure the utility is doing all it can to limit the amount of water the plant uses and the degree of heat it contributes to the river.

Brown, an energy professor at Georgia Tech, is chairman of a new Nuclear Oversight Committee the board created Thursday to oversee TVA's nuclear power program.

TVA operates six nuclear reactors at its Browns Ferry, Sequoyah and Watts Bar plants. Kilgore said TVA's $2.5 billion program to finish another reactor at Watts Bar "is on time and on schedule" with 3,200 workers now on site at the Spring City, Tenn., plant.

TVA also is spending $248 million this year to conduct engineering and site preparation to finish the Unit 1 reactor at the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Ala.

Garry Morgan, an anti-nuclear activist who lives only four miles from the Bellefonte plant, said he has asked TVA's inspector general to investigate whether TVA is exceeding its authority at Bellefonte by awarding a contract for the reactor to Babcock and Wilcox of Canada Ltd. before the board has voted to build the plant and seek a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Kilgore said the equipment is being ordered to ensure the plant can be finished by 2018, but the contract can be canceled if the board decides not to construct the plant.

TVA canceled its plans to build the original Bellefonte reactors in 2005 and the next year removed the original steam generators and other parts from the plant, which were sold as scrap for $49 million.

TVA likely will spend more than $300 million just replacing the steam generators, which Morgan called a "gross waste and abuse."

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