The directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority unanimously approved a plan on Thursday to finish the partly built Bellefonte 1 nuclear reactor, a project on which the authority spent billions of dollars in the 1970s and ’80s but dropped in 1988 because of cost overruns and declining estimates of power demand.
The revived reactor, in Hollywood, Ala., is not expected to be completed before 2018 to 2020 — or about a half-century after the project was first announced, and following nearly a quarter-century of limbo.
“The T.V.A, has wrestled with the fate of Bellefonte since 1988,” said Marilyn A. Brown, a board member who is a professor of energy policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy. The decision comes at a time when other countries, Germany and Switzerland, for example, are leaning away from nuclear power and closing older plants, after the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex in Japan in March.
The long-anticipated “nuclear renaissance” in the United States appears to have stalled as well, with only four reactors currently being built, two in Georgia and two in South Carolina.
T.V.A. planners said they were expecting continued growth in their service territory of nine million people across seven states. That, and the agency’s plans to retire or idle about 2,700 megawatts of coal-fired power plants helped inform the decision. Equipping those coal-fired generators with the antipollution equipment that the government will soon require would be more expensive, they said, than building a plant from scratch or finishing Bellefonte, which will have a capacity of 1,260 megawatts.
The board took an unusual step to try to prevent the agency from getting mired in its former nuclear ambitions, as occurred in the 1980s when the T.V.A. set out to build 17 reactors but finished only 5. The board amended its staff’s plan and voted not to resume construction on Bellefonte until after another stop-and-start reactor project, Watts Bar 2, was up and running in Tennessee.
Watts Bar was, with Bellefonte, dropped in the ’80s, but the T.V.A. went back and finished the first unit there, Watts Bar 1, in 1996, making that plant the youngest of the 103 power reactors currently operating in the United States.
The board was told by the agency’s staff at the meeting on Thursday that the construction work done to date on Bellefonte 1 would cost about $1.6 billion at today’s prices. The agency said it had spent $2.5 billion on Bellefonte 1 and 2, which was originally envisioned as a twin-unit plant. The agency has spent hundreds of millions of dollars more maintaining and securing the site since then. Completion of unit one is expected to cost another $4.9 billion, the staff said.
When work stopped in 1988, the staff said unit one was 87 percent complete. But some parts were removed for salvage, and others would need to be rebuilt to accommodate computer control. So the plant is now considered to be about 55 percent complete, the agency estimated.
One member of the board, Dennis Bottorff, questioned whether it was smart to revive four decades later a plant that met the safety standards of the 1970s.
William R. McCollum Jr., the chief operating officer, replied that the T.V.A. would have to demonstrate to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the plant met the standards in force when it got its construction permit in 1974, and complied with all the bulletins and rule updates since then.
The board also approved adding pollution-control devices to several coal plants, and the purchase of an existing gas-fired plant, and approved a 2 percent rate increase.