KNOXVILLE - America's nuclear energy program is being revived at the site of one of its worst accidents.
All signs from regulators and operators point to a startup within days of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Unit 1 reactor at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala., culminating a five-year, $1.8 billion restoration.
Mothballed since 1985, TVA's oldest reactor was the scene of a major fire sparked by a candle three decades ago. It has been reborn as a modern 1,200-megawatt atomic generator capable of lighting 650,000 homes.
The reactor is the last of three Browns Ferry units designed in the 1960s, run in the 1970s, idled in the 1980s and revived since the 1990s. It will be this country's first "new" nuclear generator of the 21st century - the 104th active commercial reactor.
Though no one has applied to build a new nuclear plant in the U.S. since the 1970s, several are now being planned.
"You could almost point to Browns Ferry Unit 1 as really the beginning of nuclear energy's rejuvenation in the United States," said Scott Peterson, vice president of the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute.
Growing demand for electricity and concern over global climate change are propelling this nuclear renaissance. The Department of Energy estimates 50 new reactors will be needed by 2030 to keep pace. Tighter controls on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants are looming and will be expensive.
"If you care about global warming and clean air, it is hard not to be for nuclear power," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., co-chairman of the TVA congressional caucus.
Dealing with the radioactive waste accumulating at plant sites - an industry volume that Peterson says would cover a football field 7 feet deep - remains a problem. Political hurdles remain on burying it in Nevada. Technical hurdles surround proposals to reprocess it like the French.
Still, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects to receive fast-track construction and operating license applications for 28 standard design reactors at 19 sites by 2009, most in the energy-hungry Southeast and Southwest.
Among the interested utilities is a group of power companies and equipment manufacturers called NuStart Energy Development LLC. The consortium, which includes TVA, is looking to build two reactors at TVA's unfinished Bellefonte plant site in Hollywood, Ala.
Knoxville-based TVA, the country's largest public utility serving 8.7 million consumers in Tennessee and six surrounding states, also expects to decide by late summer if it will complete a second reactor at its Watts Bar plant in Spring City. Watts Bar, the last new plant in the U.S., came on line in 1996 after 22 years of construction. TVA still holds a construction license for a second reactor there.
TVA estimates it could finish the second unit by 2013 for around $2 billion, about a third of the cost of the first unit. That would give TVA three plants and seven reactors, with a two-reactor Bellefonte plant coming on board between 2018 and 2020.
"We are probably going to stay in the nuclear ballpark until the clean-air regulations clear up," TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore told The Associated Press. "I think nuclear (projects are) going to be in our future for a decade."
TVA will have spent nearly $6 billion on emission controls for its fleet of 11 coal plants in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky under existing rules by the end of the decade. Tougher standards to capture carbon could cost billions more.
TVA's situation is not unique. Coal produces nearly one of every two megawatts in this country, and about 40 percent of all carbon emissions. Carbon-free nuclear supplies about 20 percent of the nation's electricity.
TVA gets 64 percent of its power from coal, 29 percent from nuclear, 6 percent from hydroelectric and 1 percent from natural gas and diesel. TVA's wind, solar and methane renewable energy program contributes less than 1 percent.
If Watts Bar 2 and Bellefonte are built, TVA's nuclear generation could approach 40 percent.
Jerry Paul, an energy policy expert at the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, said a "confluence of issues" is behind the nuclear rebound.
"It is all about climate change and emissions. It is about economics and the recognition that nuclear power has the lowest operating cost for any form of baseload generation. It is about energy supply and security," said Paul, a lawyer, nuclear engineer and former senior Department of Energy official.
Nuclear plants cost about half as much to operate as coal-fired power plants but cost twice as much to build, Kilgore said.
Critics point to TVA's troubled nuclear history and worry if the self-supporting $9 billion government corporation is weighing all its energy options.
Kilgore said the agency is taking a more conservative approach, building one plant at a time rather than several at once as it did in the 1970s, which contributed to TVA scrapping much of a planned 17-reactor system when power supply quickly exceeded demand. He also said renewable energy and conservation programs can't satisfy a market growing nearly 2 percent annually.
In 1975, Browns Ferry Unit 1 caught fire when a candle used by a worker to check for air leaks ignited insulation near the control room. Safety systems failed and a nuclear disaster was narrowly avoided. The mishap caused $10 million in damage, knocked the reactor out of service for more than a year and was considered the worst nuclear accident in the U.S. until the near meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant in 1979.
TVA shut down its entire nuclear program in 1985 over safety concerns, NRC fines and whistleblower complaints. It scrapped three plants and delayed others. Finishing Watts Bar Unit 1 cost nearly $7 billion because of extensive rewiring and pipe rewelding.
"I think it is shortsighted. Rushing back to nuclear power is a real mistake," said Steve Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. While conceding a place for nuclear in TVA's generation mix, Smith cautioned that, "We are still digging ourselves out of the last experiment TVA did with nuclear power, and it led to the massive ($25 billion) debt that TVA continues to struggle with." Few know this better than S. David Freeman, a former TVA chairman who helped kill eight of the 17 planned reactors between 1977 and 1984. "You know if anybody gave nuclear power â€˜the college try' it was the Tennessee Valley Authority. And I know because I had to suffer through it. It failed financially," said Freeman, now a commissioner with the Port of Los Angeles. "We don't even need to go to the new concerns about terrorism and nuclear proliferation and what to do with the waste and all of those issues," he said. "The pure economics of it killed it, and there is no reason to think that another round with the same technology is going to do any better." Kilgore acknowledged TVA won't be able to build just from cash flow; some borrowing will be required. But he hopes to boost the agency's debt to no more than $28 billion, still below its $30 billion congressional ceiling. Activists continue to worry about safety at TVA plants. But NRC spokesman Ken Clark said the agency's Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Browns Ferry stations have performed well in recent years. John Johnson, an Earth First! organizer, said TVA's reactors have run better than he expected when he was staging demonstrations against opening the Watts Bar plant 11 years ago. "Just to be honest and fair, I would have to give the operators credit for managing to avoid a catastrophe," Johnson said. "I still don't think it is a safe source of energy, but they are sure trying their best, since nothing bad has happened." (AP) On the Net: TVA: http://www.tva.gov AP-CS-05-05-07 1245EDT