HOLLYWOOD, Ala. — Two massive cooling towers sit like concrete giants in the middle of rural Alabama, standing out amid the hilly countryside. Each is built using 500 feet tall rebar-reinforced concrete.
Despite their size, you don’t realize how big the towers are until you’re inside. Thousands upon thousands of filters line the cooling tower floor to collect water molecules filtering upward.
A plant manager walked us from the cooling towers over to the containers where two Babcock & Wilcox-designed reactors are housed. We walked into what looked like giant grain silos, then passed through the kind of door you’d expect to see on a submarine.
Before long we’re staring down over a nuclear reactor. It’s a site relatively few people have the opportunity to see, and we were only able to see it because the reactor is offline and not emitting any radiation.
In fact, the Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station has been sitting idle for three decades since the project was first put on hold.
Frank Haney hopes President Donald Trump will give him the funding to bring the defunct nuclear plant online. Haney is asking the Department of Energy for a loan guarantee to finally bring the plant online and create thousands of jobs in the region.
TVA spent $6 billion building Bellefonte before suspending the project in 1988 after determining they didn’t need the power. The plant was mostly completed when they abandoned it.
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TVA made several other attempts to reopen the plant but ultimately decided in May 2016 to declare the plant as surplus property and sell it off.
Haney bought the plant from the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally-owned utility, in November 2016 for $111 million. He plans on cobbling together another $13 billion to complete the plant, mostly through federal loan guarantees.
Haney says he’s close to Trump, having dinner with him a dozen times since election day, Bloomberg reported. Haney is also a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
The traditionally Democratic donor gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Haney didn’t donate to Trump during the general election and has given $2.3 million to Democrats, according to The Daily Beast.
Trump supported nuclear power during the 2016 presidential campaign, and his administration is already pushing policies to keep aging nuclear plants online. The administration has stressed the role base load power plays in keeping the lights on.
Bellefonte is the type of project one would think Trump would be drawn to, especially in a state with a contentious election around the corner.
Nuclear Development LLC has been working its way through the Energy Department’s loan guarantee process for more than two years, including before it bought Bellefonte, but no loan seems to be in sight.
Instead, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in October gave a $3.7 billion loan to the Vogtle nuclear power project in Georgia. That project already received a $8.3 billion loan guarantee from the Obama administration.
Cost overruns and delays in construction have hampered the Vogtle project. Georgia Power, Vogtle’s operator, admitted the plant’s two new reactors are less than halfway done and probably won’t be online until November 2022. The project’s main contractor Westinghouse declared bankruptcy this year.
Completing Bellefonte would create up to 10,000 construction jobs and more than 2,000 jobs to operate the plant, according to Haney’s estimates. That’s a huge economic driver for sparsely-populated Jackson County.
“Nuclear Development LLC has been working with the Department of Energy on a Loan Guarantee for some time,” Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks told TheDCNF.
“They seek the same treatment recently given the Vogtle plants in Georgia,” Brooks said. “Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant construction, completion and operation would be a welcome economic ‘shot in the arm’ for Jackson County and for the entire state of Alabama.”
But there’s still lots of bureaucracy to deal with, from securing the federal loan to dealing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Haney’s plan to bring Bellefonte online relies on tax credits for advanced nuclear power generation, which expire in 2021. The plant becomes much harder to finance without federal tax credits.
Recently-introduced House tax reform legislation allows any leftover nuclear credits to be used after 2021, but it does not make anymore credits available for qualifying nuclear facilities.
Haney already has a letter from U.S. officials declaring his plant an advanced nuclear facility, despite it being built in 1988. Bellefonte could get up to $2 billion in tax credits, but the plant needs to start producing electricity first.
That’s the next problem. TVA already said it doesn’t need the power, but they would be a major Bellefonte customer if Nuclear Development LLC got the plant up and running.
However, TVA could end up buying power from Bellefonte if it’s “at the lowest feasible rates,” TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said. Haney would need to make sure Bellefonte generates cost-effective power.
“TVA sold the facility in 2016 because our 2015 Integrated Resource Plan indicates that the Tennessee Valley does not need additional base load capacity for the next 20 years,” Fiedler told TheDCNF.
“The TVA Act of 1933 directs TVA to provide power at the lowest feasible rates. So the consideration for purchasing power from Bellefonte would be made in the context of cost and need,” Fiedler said.
Critics of the project say it’s risky to fund a nuclear power project that’s languished for decades and may not have a customer.
“There are so many fundamental flaws with it,” Stephen Smith, executive director of the environmental group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told Bloomberg.
“From a need standpoint, from an infrastructure standpoint, from a licensing standpoint, this will never become an operating nuclear power plant,” Smith said.
Former TVA director Neil McBride doubted Bellefonte would ever be viable. McBride clashed with Haney over finishing Bellefonte, and the former director called himself the project’s “the most outspoken opponent.”
“Anyone operating a major, new plant like that would have to depend on TVA as a customer,” McBride told Bloomberg.
Haney told local reporters Bellefonte’s prices “going to be equal to, or less, than that from natural gas plants.” Nuclear power prices are also not nearly as volatile as natural gas prices.
Haney is determined to get the project done. After all, he’s been looking to buy the Bellefonte plant for more than 15 years.
Besides, Haney’s no stranger to hard work. He sold Bibles to put himself through college, and he made his fortune investing in buildings leased by federal and state agencies. Haney also invested in Northern Virginia’s Dulles Greenway Toll Road.
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