By MATTHEW L. WALD/NYT
HOLLYWOOD, Ala. — Spider webs line the 50-story cooling towers, parts have been amputated for the scrap value of their nickel or copper, and the control room still has analog dials at Bellefonte 1, a half-built nuclear plant here that was shelved 23 years ago.
This does not seem like a particularly opportune moment to breathe life back into a reactor that was designed before the computer age. But its owner, the quasi-governmental Tennessee Valley Authority, says the plant may be its best bet for generating cleaner and more economical new electricity.
Since an earthquake and tsunami unleashed a nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima reactors in March, several countries have distanced themselves from nuclear energy. The German chancellor announced her intention to shutter all of the country’s nuclear facilities by 2022, and the Swiss Parliament is heading in the same direction.
A modern reactor project in Texas was canceled after Fukushima, and one in Maryland fell apart last year. And even before the catastrophe in Japan, the nuclear industry as a whole had been suffering from a surfeit of generating capacity, the cheap price of natural gas and the high price of construction.
So why is the Tennessee Valley Authority — which recently announced it would close 18 antiquated and dirty coal-fired plants — trying to revive a reactor that for years has served only as a salvage heap?
Right now, said Eric T. Beaumont, a nuclear expert and partner in Copia Capital, a private investment firm in Chicago, “it doesn’t seem like the most prudent use of money.”
“They should definitely be doing something different,” said Louis A. Zeller, science director for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, a regional advocacy group. He likes to call Bellefonte “the zombie reactor” because it is neither dead nor alive.
Mr. Zeller and other skeptics say that beyond the obvious challenges the nuclear industry faces, the Bellefonte 1 project has inescapable flaws. The reactor is too expensive and too antiquated, they contend, and it lies in an earthquake zone.
But the authority is moving forward, estimating that Bellefonte 1 could be up and running as early as 2020, half a century after it was conceived. Cost estimates for completing the reactor run $4 billion to $5 billion on top of the $4 billion that has already been invested.
Thomas Kilgore, the authority’s president and chief executive, said finishing it now would make more sense later. “Why nuclear?” he said. “Once you get the unit built, you’ve got inflation locked out.”
Mr. Beaumont, the industry analyst, said that “based on cost, I absolutely think you can say it’s crazy.” But that assessment might change over time, he allowed.
The Environmental Protection Agency could force additional coal-generated power plants to close as it polices greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the demand for cleaner sources of energy, he said. The price of natural gas will eventually rise, making nuclear energy more competitive, he added, and at some point, existing nuclear plants will wear out.
T.V.A. executives have another troublesome variable to deal with, unpredictable changes in demand, which is what they say caused them to shut down construction in 1988.
“I can’t forecast out 8 or 10 years,” Mr. Kilgore said, but “we just know when we get there, Bellefonte 1 is a good economic proposition.”
Because the plant already has a precious construction license, albeit from 1974, and because of the authority’s independent status, it faces far fewer obstacles than most other reactor builders.
The T.V.A. does not answer to state regulators. It has no shareholders to worry. As a federally chartered corporation established in 1933 as part of the New Deal, it is overseen by nine directors who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Today it supplies electricity across parts of seven states, serving roughly nine million people.
It also enjoys financial advantages that most public utilities lack, borrowing money at rates similar to those paid by the United States Treasury, which is critical for building hugely expensive reactors.
That makes it one of the very few American builders that could pull off a nuclear power comeback in this climate. With the exception of Watts Bar 1, another T.V.A. plant that was mothballed for a time but was finished in 1996, no new reactor construction has been started since the early 1990s. Two new plants in Georgia and South Carolina are awaiting construction permits, and the authority is working on finishing a second Watts Bar reactor similar in vintage to Bellefonte 1 that is expected to be completed next year.
Authority managers have said they would ask their board this summer for money to complete Bellefonte 1; last year the board voted to allocate $248 million just to explore that possibility.
Currently, the T.V.A. gets 60 percent of its energy from fossil fuels, mostly coal, and in addition to the 18 generators it recently agreed to shut at the urging of the E.P.A., it must decide whether to scrub or close several more. The authority’s goal is to have 50 percent of its generation come from “low or zero carbon-emitting sources” by 2020, which is why Bellefonte 1 is a dinosaur back in play.
Bellefonte 1 is the most on-again, off-again nuclear project in the country. In 1970, the T.V.A. said that within eight years it would build two nuclear reactors here for $650 million. Construction did not start until 1974, and by 1988, the authority had spent more than six times what it had budgeted.
When it realized there was no immediate need for the power, construction ceased. In 1994, the authority tried to arrange to sell the plant’s output to the Philadelphia Electric Company. That deal fell through. In 1997, it tried to make another deal with the Energy Department, which needed a reactor to make tritium for nuclear weapons. But another T.V.A. reactor was enlisted.
Representative Mo Brooks, a Republican whose Congressional district covers northern Alabama, said he was all for completing the plant. “More people have been killed by coal than nuclear, by far, when you talk about the mining, the pollution of the water and the air pollution,” he said. “Nuclear’s not perfect, but it seems to be better than any alternative.”
The City Council in nearby Scottsboro and the Jackson County Commission both adopted resolutions last year favoring either completion of Bellefonte 1 or construction of a new reactor.
Residents say Bellefonte 1 will do wonders for the local economy. Operating the completed plant is expected to take 2,800 workers, which would make it the largest employer in the county.
“Had it not been for the T.V.A., we would still be watching TV by candlelight,” said Ron Bailey, the vice president for business development at the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
Kayla Thomas, 27, a school cafeteria worker shopping in Scottsboro with her 8-year-old daughter, Trinity, said the region needed a “pick-me-up.”
“Even if some of those people are coming from out of town, guess what, they’re going to be spending the money here,” she said.
The prospect of nuclear accidents does not worry her, Ms. Thomas said. “Anything is going to have its safety issues,” she said, using her fingers to draw quote marks in the air around the word safety.