As Watts Bar 2 prepares to start up, the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has voted to sell the Bellefonte nuclear power plant site, with its two partially built reactors and other infrastructure, to the highest bidder.

TVA CEO Bill Johnson at yesterday’s public meeting of the TVA board said that nuclear power had an important role to play in the federally-owned corporate agency’s diversified portfolio. “We are relying on our nuclear plants for electricity that is reliable, clean, low-cost and round-the-clock”, he said. However, against a background of lower energy demand and changing usage patterns, TVA’s 2015 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) determined that it will not need to build any new large-scale baseload capacity for at least the next 20 years.

TVA has been preserving the Bellefonte property as an option for future nuclear generation, but Johnson said that in light of the IRP, the “time had come” to consider whether TVA would better serve the public by retaining the site or selling it. As well as two partially built nuclear reactors, on-site infrastructure includes switchyards, office buildings, warehouses, cooling towers, water pumping stations and railroad spurs.

TVA purchased Bellefonte, in northern Alabama, in 1974 and began work to build two B&W pressurized water reactors. Construction was suspended in 1988, when unit 1 was about 90% complete and unit 2 58% complete. Since then, many of the units’ components have been transferred or sold, while others would need to be upgraded or replaced, meaning that the levels of completion of the units today are substantially lower. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reinstated the construction permits for the units in 2009.

In 2007, TVA and the NuStart consortium filed a construction and operating licence application with the NRC for two Westinghouse AP1000 units at the site, but the application has been suspended indefinitely since 2010.

Earlier this year, TVA invited stakeholders to express their views on a potential sale of Bellefonte to help inform a decision on whether to retain the site or sell it to the highest bidder. Out of a total of 79 responses received from customers, public officials, developers and environmental advocacy groups and residents, 39 supported selling the site and 28 opposed. All elected officials who commented recommended selling the site to someone who would complete the plant, TVA’s executive vice-president and General Counsel Sherry Quirk said.

Now that the board has declared the site surplus, it will be offered at auction to qualified bidders subject to a minimum price. Quirk said that an independent appraisal has valued the site at $36.4 million. To qualify, bidders must demonstrate their financial worthiness and submit their plans to develop the site, whether or not that includes completing the units. The winning bidder will also be expected to meet some of the costs associated with the auction. Some of the existing environmental reviews including environmental impact statements supporting the construction and operation of the nuclear plant may need to be updated, and additional environmental reviews would have to be conducted to support non-nuclear uses.

Watts Bar 2

Johnson confirmed that Watts Bar 2 is expected to reach first criticality later this month, with full power expected in June and commercial operation “later this summer”. Construction of the 1165 MWe (net) pressurized water reactor resumed in 2007, after a 22-year suspension. The unit is now undergoing power ascension testing, to ensure the plant’s systems, structures and components “have been properly designed and built”, Johnson said. He described bringing the unit to full power as a “complex, time-consuming and difficult process”.

While TVA does not expect to need additional large scale capacity for some time after Watts Bar 2 comes on line, Johnson said that the company was still considering future nuclear options. “We are continuing to explore small modular reactors as a potential long-term resource, provided that the technology proves to be a good fit for TVA and its customers”, he said.

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