published Thursday, June 13th, 2013

TVA's Bellefonte nuclear power plant slashes jobs

The two cooling towers at TVA's Bellefonte nuclear power plant in Hollywood, Ala., tower 500 feet above the ground.
The two cooling towers at TVA's Bellefonte nuclear power plant in Hollywood, Ala., tower 500 feet above the ground.
Photo by Staff File Photo.
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Is TVA wasting money on the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant?
  • TVA Bellefonte may be completed
    Construction that cost $4 billion began on the TVA Bellefonte nuclear site in Hollywood, Ala., in 1974 but was never completed. TVA explored different options for use of the facility, even selling steel and other infrastructure items from the plant. Now TVA will have to replace some of that infrastructure in hopes of opening the facility around 2020.

Plant a glance

Name: Bellefonte

Owner: Tennessee Valley Authority

Investment so far: More than $5 billion

Needed extra investment: More than $4.9 billion

Original units: Twin Babcock & Wilcox pressurized water reactors

New units: Proposed Westinghouse AP1000 reactors

Peak staff: 3,000-plus in the 1970s

Current staff: 540 employees

2014 staff: 140

Bellefonte Plant starts and stops

1974 -- Construction permit issued and building begins.

1985 -- Construction halted on Unit 2, 55 percent complete at the time.

1988 -- Construction halted on Unit 1, 88 percent complete at the time.

1992 -- Engineering work resumed to prepare for restart of construction.

1994 -- Estimates say finishing Bellefonte would cost $2.6 billion. Engineering work halted.

1996 -- TVA studies option of converting plant to natural gas.

1998 -- Gas conversion option dropped; TVA offers plant to the Department of Energy to make bomb-grade tritium.

1998 -- DOE picks existing TVA plants to produce tritium.

2001 -- Texaco proposes using Bellefonte as site for coal gasification plant and Chattanooga financier Franklin Haney offers to finance completion of Bellefonte. TVA rejects both offers.

2005 -- Nuclear coalition known as NuStart picks Bellefonte as the first site for Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear plant; TVA withdraws construction permit for original plant.

2006 -- NuStart prepares licensing permit and engineering design for new plant and sells stainless steel tubing, pipes at Bellefonte for scrap metal.

2008 -- TVA reverses course and revives work on Bellefonte Units 1 and 2 instead of pursuing AP1000 design. NuStart shifts original AP1000 to Georgia's Vogtle plant.

2009 -- Nuclear Regulatory Commission reinstates construction for original reactors in terminated status.

2011 -- TVA directors vote to finish original reactors at Bellefonte and authorize engineering studies to prepare cost estimate.

2013 -- TVA announces plans to cut 400 jobs and cut spending.

For the third time since construction began at the Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant nearly 40 years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority is scaling back work on the North Alabama facility.

TVA announced Wednesday it will phase out nearly three-fourths of the 540-person staff at Bellefonte this summer and trim its spending at the twin-reactor plant next year by more than $100 million. TVA Senior Vice President Mike Skaggs said the utility needs to husband its resources in the face of stagnant power demand and will focus its nuclear construction activities almost entirely upon finishing work on a second reactor at the Watts Bar plant near Spring City, Tenn.

"We're facing challenges at TVA with mild weather and the mild economy affecting our sales," Skaggs said. "We're in the process of trying to improve our cost efficiencies."

Slowing down work at the long-delayed Bellefonte plant will cost the jobs of 335 contractors and 80 TVA employees, although some of the displaced workers could find jobs at other TVA nuclear plants.

"It's another kick in the gut for us, but through the years we've grown used to disappointments with this plant," said Goodrich "Dus" Rogers, president of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority. "We'd rather see this plant finished sooner rather than later, but we understand TVA has to respond to its business conditions."

TVA has invested more than $5 billion over the past four decades on building a pair of Babcock and Wilcox-designed reactors which, if completed, could generate enough power to supply four cities the size of Chattanooga.

But critics of TVA's nuclear power program contend the utility already has surplus power capacity and trying to finish Bellefonte after decades of erratic building activity is financially and environmentally risky.

"It's crazy that TVA would try to take what will be a 50-year-old reactor if its built and ask the NRC to license it when TVA simply doesn't need this much more power," said Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a member of TVA's power planning advisory group five years ago. "There may be some ways to use this site in a non-nuclear way, but at this point TVA needs to put the nail in the coffin of Bellefonte once and for all and put this nuclear plant to death."

But Bellefonte seems to be like a zombie that will not die. TVA halted construction in the 1980s when power demand slackened and safety problems emerged throughout TVA's nuclear program. After two decades of keeping the mothballed plant ready to resume construction, TVA ultimately decided to scrap the unfinished Bellefonte plant in 2006. The site was designated instead for a new type of reactor.

But after selling some plant parts for scrap metal, TVA reversed itself and decided it would be better to finish the original design rather than pursue a new type of reactor at Bellefonte.

Since 2008, however, the need for Bellefonte has slackened as TVA's power demand has declined. The federal utility doesn't expect to return to its pre-recession sales of electricity for another decade.

"TVA has 15 percent more capacity than it needs just sitting idle and it's going to take many years for TVA to eat through that surplus," said Louse Gorenflo, a director for a group fighting against the Alabama plant -- the Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team. "Pouring more money into something that TVA clearly doesn't have a need for is a waste of ratepayer money."

Skaggs said TVA isn't giving up on Bellefonte, which is largely built and is getting new steam generators fabricated. But for now, Skaggs said TVA wants to focus its nuclear construction efforts almost entirely upon the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar, which TVA is trying to finish by 2015. TVA will cut its $182 million budget this year at Bellefonte to $66 million in fiscal 2014.

"If you have two cars that aren't running and you need transportation with a limited amount of money, you're going to make sure you get one of those cars running before you do much work on the other car," he said.

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

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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