OPINION: How many times will we pay for a still-not-working Bellefonte Nuclear Plant?

·5 min read

May 22—Almost five years ago we wrote on this page: "It is truly mind-numbing to comprehend the vast waste of [electricity] ratepayer and taxpayer money lost on the siting, building, scrapping, building again and now abandoning Bellefonte Nuclear Plant."

Today, we can add to this. It is truly mind-numbing to comprehend the vast waste of TVA ratepayer and taxpayer money lost on the siting, building, scrapping, building again, abandoning, putting up for sale, almost selling and now going to court to defend not selling Bellefonte Nuclear Plant.

Based solely on the construction costs, the Tennessee Valley Authority says we've already spent between $5 billion and $6 billion since 1970 when the federal utility announced the plant and began work on it four years later on an absolutely gorgeous 1,600-acre plot in North Alabama between Highway 72 and the Tennessee River in Jackson County.

Five congressmen, however, in 2018 wrote that TVA's total cost at Bellefonte was $9 billion. Hey, what's a billion here and a billion there? Those congressmen — four from Alabama and our own Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann — asked in a letter they penned to Donald Trump's U.S. Department of Energy, that DOE in effect let us taxpayers and ratepayers pay for the plant again.

This time, they wanted us to subsidize Chattanooga billionaire developer and financier Franklin L. Haney's privatization of Bellefonte and its nuclear power with as much as $6 billion in government-backed loans and $2 billion in production tax credits. In other words, Haney would use our money to put himself in the nuclear power business.

First off, the mere fact that TVA in 2016 ever put a "for sale" sign seeking a $36.4 million — with an M — minimum bid on the nearly finished $9 billion — with a B — Bellefonte and its vast acreage should, in our view, be considered cause for a mock criminal trial.

But right now, the only trial is a civil one in a federal courtroom in Huntsville. The question to be decided is whether Haney, who in 2016 quickly offered $111 million — will end up with this property or whether TVA will keep it after canceling the sale in 2018.

And it's complicated. Haney's nuclear team, Nuclear Development LLC, failed to complete an estimated $13 billion completion plan that could persuade the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve TVA's nuclear construction license transfer to him by TVA's two-year sales completion deadline.

"Our position from the beginning was that because Nuclear Development failed to obtain the transfer of the construction permit from the NRC, they didn't meet the legal requirements to close the sale because the NRC requires that permit transfer," TVA President Jeff Lyash told the Times Free Press in a recent interview. "We properly did not close on the sale, and now that contract has expired."

Haney's attorneys counter that TVA failed to provide "reasonable cooperation" with Haney's new enterprise which was required under the original 2016 sales agreement.

This case is a "simple breach-of-contract case," said Caine O'Rear III, an attorney for Haney's company.

The judge in the Huntsville court has indicated the case is clouded by a reputed dispute over how and to whom Haney's company might sell future Bellefonte power. In statements about the purchase, Haney and TVA indicated the power would be sold to TVA for resale. But Haney's hire, former TVA Chief Operating Officer Bill McCollum, in a meeting with officials of Memphis Light Gas & Water, urged the city-owned utility to buy its power from Bellefonte or other suppliers, not TVA.

Did we mention that the Memphis utility is TVA's biggest customer?

Former TVA President Bill Johnson, who made the decision not to grant Haney a second extension of the sales agreement, said he was irritated by McCollum's comments to Memphis. But Johnson said he terminated the sales agreement with Haney in the fall of 2018 because he wasn't sure Nuclear Development ever could secure the NRC approval for taking over the unfinished plant, not to squelch potential competition from Nuclear Development or to block its efforts to urge Memphis to split with TVA.

But the eccentric 80-year-old Haney, once a door-to-door Bible salesman and always a big-spending, bipartisan political donor, is not going away meekly. For decades, he has made a pretty penny off the government, building or buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of buildings which he used to become a government landlord. He also owns one of the country's biggest privately owned toll roads. And now he has a new goal.

For the past decade, he has been working to position himself to become the first private individual to own and operate a commercial nuclear power plant in America.

And why not? There are many billions of dollars in tax credits and loan guarantees out there for it, and he's lobbied everyone for help to get some of it — from those five congressmen to Donald Trump to Trump's fixer Michael Cohen to foreign investors from Qatar, according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other major news organizations.

We all need to hope and pray that TVA remains stuck with this mothballed plant and its land.

If nothing else, all those acres would make a fine solar and wind farm. Gosh, that should spark a bit of electricity in the era of climate change. And it can't possibly cost us any more than paying for Haney's newest wild hair venture.