Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant Refurbished and Running

An Alabama nuclear plant shut down for 22 years has been restarted — an example of how U.S. utilities are showing interest in nuclear power as they search for "clean" energy sources. Revamping the plant cost $1.8 billion.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People are also taking nuclear power seriously these days. And report on an event that some people are seeing as the beginning of a renaissance for nuclear power.

A nuclear reactor in Alabama that has been shut down for 22 years is being turned on again. The overhaul is costing $1.8 billion, but the operator says this move makes financial sense.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The Browns Ferry 1 plant sits on the Tennessee River. It hasn't exactly been a poster child for nuclear power. In 1975, workers started a fire accidentally while checking for an air leak with a candle. Until Three Mile Island, that was the most serious mishap at a nuclear power plant. The plant was shut down in the '80s, but times change. About five years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the regional electricity provider, started fixing it up. And yesterday morning, Browns Ferry 1 came to life again. Ashok Bhatnagar oversaw the project.

Mr. ASHOK BHATNAGAR (Project Manager, Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant): We started by pulling control rods to begin the chain reaction. And then we essentially got to the point where we had a self-sustaining nuclear reaction, and that completes the restart.

KESTENBAUM: He expects it will be attached the grid in the next few weeks, eventually providing over 1,000 megawatts of power, enough for 650,000 homes. The Tennessee Valley Authority had to bring in workers from around the country. Total cost: $1.8 billion.

Mr. BHATNAGAR: We had like 200 miles of cables. We had probably eight miles of piping. We had hundreds of valves, hundreds of motors that were refurbished.

KESTENBAUM: The partner plants, Browns Ferry 2 and 3, were brought back online in the 1990s. Bahtnager says refurbishing these plants simply made financial sense. Alternatives are getting expensive and the area's electricity needs are increasing.

Mr. BAHTNAGER: Just to give you a feel. Originally, we thought the payback for this project would be about eight years. And right now, we're probably in the neighborhood of four to five year's payback.

KESTENBAUM: So is nuclear power making a comeback? No utility in the United States has ordered a new plant for several decades, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says utilities have told it to expect applications for as many as 28 new reactors over the next few years.

Jerry Paul is an energy expect at the Howard Baker Center at the University of Tennessee. His post is funded in part by the Tennessee Valley Authority, but the center considers itself independent.

Mr. JERRY PAUL (Energy Policy Expert, Howard Baker Center for Public Policy): And I think that over the last decade or so, a growing percentage of the population is more and more focused on global climate change and the desire for lowering emissions. And I think that more people have begun to recognize that nuclear power is the one source of large-scale generation that doesn't emit any greenhouse gases.

KESTENBAUM: There are plenty of doubters, though. Stephen Smith is executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. We reached him at a daylong meeting on global warming.

Mr. STEPHEN SMITH (Executive Director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy): The real question here is, if you're going to spend $2 billion, what's the best way to spend that $2 billion?

KESTENBAUM: Smith would rather have seen the Browns Ferry money put toward energy conservation and renewables. He agrees the major rivers in the area have already been dammed for hydropower, but what about biomass, he says. Burning, say, leftovers from agriculture.

Mr. SMITH: I find it ironic that the Tennessee Valley Authority and people in the nuclear industry are pointing to this particular reactor, which came to closest to have a meltdown, short of Three Mile Island, and then has sat idle for 22 years and are touting it as an example of a nuclear renaissance. Because the reality is TVA ratepayers have been losing billions of dollars all the years that it hasn't been working.

KESTENBAUM: Smith does not think a catastrophic accident is likely in Alabama. Am I packing up and moving because of Browns Ferry, he says, no. But he does worry about nuclear waste and the spread of nuclear technology abroad.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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