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Selling Nuclear in a Post-Fukushima Age

Job-hungry region more disappointed over delays than fearful over safety of new nuclear plant.

Cooling towers at TVA’s off-again on-again Bellefonte nuclear reactor have loomed over the countryside for two decades.

Cooling towers at TVA’s off-again on-again Bellefonte nuclear reactor have loomed over the countryside for two decades.

The Tennessee Valley Authority produced lots of excitement in Scottsboro last August when it announced plans to restart construction on the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant Unit One. The massive project, just up the road in Hollywood, would complete TVA’s fourth nuclear plant, which was shut down more than 20 years ago when TVA realized that demand for its 1,260 megawatts of electricity had not materialized as planned.

But that excitement quickly dimmed in April when TVA put the project on hold until at least 2014 because of delays at Watts Barr in Tennessee and because of falling power demands.

Rick Roden, president and CEO of Greater Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, says, “TVA told us that delays in getting Watts Bar finished would delay getting fuel loaded there.  And, of course, TVA is waiting for the economy to break open.”

The delay actually brings a mixed blessing, Roden says. “We still have 400 to 500 people working at Bellefonte every day, so that’s certainly a plus for the local economy.  The delay gives us more time to get prepared for the big influx of about 3,000 to 4,000 we expect when this thing gets ramped up.”

Lack of Power Demand

TVA President Tom Kilgore tried to put the situation in perspective at a May presentation to the Scottsboro Rotary Club.  He was sympathetic to those whose growth plans had to be put on hold, but reiterated that the utility needs to see some rebound in the economy to justify the production of all of those millions of kilowatts.

The slowing economy and mounting conservation efforts have prompted TVA to shrink earlier projections of power demand growth. Just since last year, estimates of demand for new power dropped from 9,600 to 6,300 megawatts and from 28,000 to 11,000 gigawatt hours.

Nuclear has been part of TVA’s diversified energy supply since the 1970s, along with hydroelectric, coal, natural gas and more recently renewable energy. With production costs among the lowest in TVA’s portfolio and reliability among the highest, TVA’s three nuclear plants at Browns Ferry, Sequoyah and Watts Bar generate about a third of TVA’s electricity.

TVA’s switch to nuclear power has been dramatic. Since it was established in the 1930s, TVA relied on hydroelectric and later coal-fired plants for most of its capacity. However, today the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant alone provides as much energy as all 29 hydroelectric dams combined.

TVA’s IRP case studies had selected completion of the Bellefonte Unit 1 reactor as the most cost-effective option after finishing Watts Bar 2. Completion of Unit 1 will replace the equivalent of five to ten coal-fired units, taking TVA a long way down the road in the reduction of smog, haze and acid rain.

Safety Concerns

Bellefonte’s giant monolithic cooling towers can be seen everywhere in Hollywood, Ala.  And in the aftermath of last spring’s problems at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant following a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami, Hollywood residents eye those towers with a certain amount of skepticism. 

Like many in Hollywood, Steven Moore has reservations. “You know, it’s good for the economy. I think it will bring in lots of jobs.” But safety does concern him.  “It’s kind of scary, you know. Something could go wrong.  If radiation leaks, you’d have to evacuate everyone.”

But to Hollywood Mayor Virginia Bergman, the prospect of jobs and growth trumps other considerations.

Though the mayor occasionally worries about safety, she says, “I’m trusting that they’ll take every precaution,” calling Fukushima an “eye opener for everyone to look at things more carefully.”

John Summers, owner of Summers Diesel Service, echoes her sentiments. “I believe it will really help this local area, which needs all the help it can get,” he says. He doesn’t like the delays in construction. “The sooner they get started the better.”

To Summers, the fear of a nuclear meltdown is overblown. “I’m not worried. This is the next step, nuclear energy. It’s the next step in the evolution of us getting our own power.”

TVA safety plans

Fukushima helped bring safety concerns into sharp focus, as revealed in a TVA white paper published in August 2011, which listed public safety concerns and post-Japan requirements as two major issues that impacted the decision to proceed.

Dave Stinson, TVA site vice president for Bellefonte, says a basic concern is the adequacy of the plant and equipment that has stood idle for two decades. Construction cannot begin, he says, until existing equipment is validated and TVA is confident there has been no degradation. “We want to make sure what’s out there is what we think is out there,” he says.

After Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued an order saying they wanted all U.S. nuclear plants to look at what went wrong at Fukushima and respond with changes in their own operations. For plants under construction, that meant possible design changes. Wally Justice, Bellefonte engineering manager, says there are about eight design areas that needed to be addressed.

Those changes involve alterations in seismic activity preparations, hydrogen recombining and spent fuel upgrades, adding about $100 million to Bellefonte’s projected $4.9 billion cost.

Even though Bellefonte is located hundreds of miles from the nearest earthquake zone, Stinson says TVA planning includes scenarios for a quake that might damage the reactor, or more likely, rupture a dam upstream from the reactor. Though a broken dam upstream could send a tremendous amount of water, the Bellefonte site would have a full day of notice and should stay dry, he says.

However, such an event could, ironically, knock out power to the reactor itself, making it impossible to cool fuel rods — as happened at Fukushima. New plans call for diesel generators so there’s power to cool fuel in an emergency, Stinson says.

Justice says Fukushima’s second greatest problem was the pressures created when vast quantities of hydrogen formed from the breakdown of water, creating potentially explosive levels of hydrogen in the reactor. TVA will solve that problem, he says, with the use of hydrogen re-combiners that turn it back into water and avoid risk of explosion.

Mike Kelley is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Huntsville.

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