August 18, 2011
Alabama Nuclear Reactor, Partly Built, to Be Finished
Matthew L. Wald
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced its decision to finish its Bellafonte 1 nuclear reactor, which was abandoned in 1988 when it was 87 percent complete. Completion of the unit is expected to cost about $4.9 billion, on top of the $1.6 billion of construction to date on the project (valued at today’s prices). The unit will have a capacity of 1260 megawatts, which will help TVA replace the 2700 megawatts of coal-fired generation that it plans to retire or put on standby status. Bellafonte 1 is expected to be completed between 2018 and 2020; the plant is considered to be only about 55 percent complete, given the removal of parts from the unit since 1988 and the need to replace or upgrade many parts to meet today’s NRC licensing requirements. As noted in Matthew Wald’s article in the New York Times, the long-anticipated “nuclear renaissance” in the United States appears to have stalled, with only four reactors currently being built, two in Georgia and two in South Carolina. This reduced enthusiasm for nuclear power in the U.S. can be attributed primarily to bad economics and increased concern about safety in light of Japan’s nuclear incident at Fukushima. The economics are unfavorable due to low natural gas prices, which makes nuclear power much less cost-competitive, and the reduced volatility of natural gas prices (if the forecasts are to be believed), which makes natural gas an acceptable source of baseload electric generation to replace coal-fired units, a role that nuclear power was expected to play as the U.S. moves toward cleaner energy sources. In the case of the TVA plant, however, a $4.9 billion price tag for 1260 megawatts of “clean” generation (clean in the sense that no greenhouse gases are emitted from the generation of electricity, irrespective of the carbon footprint under a life-cycle analysis) is much less expensive than building a new nuclear plant from the ground up. If TVA can indeed complete the plant for $4.9 billion, that represents a cost per kilowatt of about $3900, as compared to the $7 billion price tag for a Westinghouse AP1000 reactor with 1250 megawatts of generating capacity, which translates to a price of about $5600 per kilowatt. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Bellafonte 1 can be brought on line for $4.9 billion. The history of nuclear plant construction in the 1980s, which featured significant construction delays and cost over-runs, suggests otherwise.