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TVA board approves auction of Bellefonte nuclear site

TheTennessee Valley Authoritywill be auctioning off its unfinished Bellefonte nuclear power plant and surrounding propertyin Jackson County, Ala., now that the utility's board has formally deemed theassets to be surplus.

Theboard during a May 5 meeting approved the recommendation by management to offerthe property for auction to the highest bidder "without restrictions onits use." Seven members TVA's board voted in favor of the plan and tworecused themselves from the vote.

GeneralCounsel Sherry Quirk presented the management's recommendation for the site andsaid the next steps following board approval would be the hiring of an auctionfirm to help structure and conduct the site's auction. The utility would alsoestablish and announce bidder qualifications and then set a minimum price,Quirk said, adding that the appraised value for the site is $36.4 million.The sale of the property would also be subject to the completion of "necessaryenvironmental reviews," according to Quirk.

TVAbegan building two reactors at the Bellefonte site in 1974 but after costssoared and demand did not grow as quickly as expected the utility halted constructionin 1988 despite unit 1 being about 88% complete and unit 2 58% complete andspending more than $2.5 billion on the project. The site remained in limbo formany years thereafter until TVA in 2007 asked the U.S. Nuclear RegulatoryCommission to issue a combined construction and operating license for twoentirely new reactors at Bellefonte. Then, in 2011, the TVA board voted tocomplete Bellefonte unit 1 at an estimated cost of $4.9 billion. But by 2013,that estimate had jumped to a range of $7.4 billion to $8.7 billion, and theboard decided to stop active work on the reactor.

InFebruary TVA notifiedthe NRC that it was withdrawing its license application for units 3 and 4.While the company is exploring adding a small modular nuclear reactor, anydecision to add more nuclear capacity is at least a decade away because slowdemand growth means TVA will not need significantly more baseload capacityuntil the 2030s, according to a utility long-term planning document.

TVAtherefore soughtpublic input on whether to sell the 1,600-acre Bellefonte site and associatedinfrastructure, including the two unfinished reactors. In April, the TVAreported that ofthose who chimed in 39 commenters were in favor of TVA selling the plant and 28said the utility should retain Bellefonte. AlabamaGov. Robert Bentley, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks,R-Ala., and local officials supported selling Bellefonte to an entity thatwould complete the plant. Several environmental advocacy groups, however,opposed the sale, maintaining that it should be retained and repurposed togenerate renewable energy. Two developers also expressed interest in buying thesite.

Afterreviewing the comments, the board on May 5 decided to move forward with thesales plan.

Meanwhile,TVA is readying for commercial operations its new Watts Bar unit 2 reactor.Granted an operatinglicense by the NRC in October 2015, the unit is to reach "initialcriticality" this month and begin commercial operation later this summer.But that reactor has also encountered some late difficulty.

TheNRC in a March letter concludedthat a "chilled work environment" exists in the operations departmentat Watts Bar, a determination that follows earlier statements from the NRC thatsome employees at the plant may be afraid to report safety concerns for fear ofretaliation from plant authorities. The letter came shortly after a meetingwith the NRC in which TVA publiclyaccepted responsibility for the perception of safety culture problems and outlinedseveral steps — such as new training sessions and employee surveys — to addressthe issue.

Commentingon the controversy during the May 5 meeting, board member Marilyn Brown said "we'vebeen working with management to address any perception concerns." The utility will alsocontinue to engage with the NRC to make sure the agency is satisfied with itsefforts, Brown said, reporting that TVA formally responded to the NRC letter inApril. "I speak for the board when I say employees can raise a safety concernat any time and any setting," Brown maintained.