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TVA Seeks Green Light To Build Bellefonte

The utility plans to invest $4-5 billion to complete the reactor

One of the most dramatic resurrections of a stalled nuclear reactor construction project is unfolding in Hollywood, Ala. There the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is getting ready to formally ask its board of directors this August to approve completion of the 1,260 MW PWR plant which halted in the late 1980s. TVA CEO Tom Kilgore told the news media June 3 Bellefonte Unit 1 could be delivering power to the grid by 2018-2020.

A diverse set of anti-nuclear groups oppose the action citing the damage to four nuclear reactors in Japan. Instead of completing the plant, they want more energy efficiency, solar, wind, and other renewable energy power programs.

TVA started work on two new nuclear reactors at Bellefonte in the mid-170s, but stopped work on both units by the late 1980s as the utility realized the plants would not be needed to meet electricity demand. In 2008 TVA began to look at the question of whether it would be cheaper to complete one or both reactors at Bellefonte rather than build two brand new units.

It asked NRC to reinstate the construction license. Two of the agency’s then three commissioners agreed with now chairman Gregory Jaczko siding with opponents of the project. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) filed a lawsuit over the NRC’s decision which is now pending in the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals.

TVA believes that the robust containment structure and the superb condition of the reactor pressure vessel will make Bellefonte a safe reactor. Ray Hruby, the TVA project manager, told the news media that when construction is complete it will be the most advanced reactor in the U.S. including its use of digital controls.

While it will take another $4 billion to complete, TVA believes the high reliability will drive revenue to produce a fast payback. Also, at a cost of less than $4,000 KW, the investment makes sense when compared to building a new reactor from scratch. Hruby points out that the Babcock & Wilcox design is well known having been used for other reactors. There’s lots of operating experience to draw on.

NRC licensing process has potholes

TVA will use the NRC old Part 50 licensing process rather than the new Part 52 regulations which provide a combined construction and operating license. Part 50 separates them with two decision points. The problem for TVA is that every decision by the NRC requires public input and that provides opportunities for leverage by opponents of the project.

They’re not waiting for a licensing hearing. A coalition of anti-nuclear groups has filed a petition with the NRC to stop licensing proceedings not only for Bellefonte but for all new nuclear reactor construction in the U.S. The group, which includes BREDL and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, claim that the disaster at Fukushima proves once and for all nuclear reactors are not safe. Also, the group claims TVA’s units at Browns Ferry are vulnerable to tornados.

TVA’s CEO Tom Kilgore rejects the group’s claims saying they are unsubstantiated by the facts. He points out that when tornados knocked down transmission lines coming from Browns Ferry the plant went to cold shutdown as planned in such events. They’ve since come back on line.  TVA recently gave a tour of one of its reactors to CNN explaing the reactor’s safety systems. CNN Video

As for Fukushima, Kilgore points out the basic differences are that there will not be any earthquakes or tsunamis to threaten TVA’s reactors. He added that the NRC is reviewing what took place at Fukushima. He says if the agency requires additional measures for specific TVA reactors the utility to respond to the agency’s direction.

TVA project manager Hruby points out that Bellefonte will be built with redundant systems including emergency electrical power. The spent fuel pool, often a target of criticism from anti-nuclear groups, will be separate from the reactor structure. The primary containment structure for the reactor pressure vessel is three-and-a-half feet thick with a steel liner. There is a secondary containment structure that is 18 inches of steel reinforced concrete.

New Lamps for Old

TVA points out that when Bellefonte comes online at the end of this decade that it will be replacing several coal plants that will be retired from service. This means the utility, which is one of the nation’s biggest users of coal, will be reducing its carbon footprint by the amount of CO2 it would have taken to produce 1,200 MW of power with fossil fuels. That’s a big deal.

According to an August 9, 2009, report by World Nuclear News, TVA said that it has identified the need for additional base load generation in the 2017 to 2020 time frame. TVA wants to have at least 50% of its generation portfolio comprised of low or zero carbon-emitting sources by the year 2020.

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