Jun 21 2007

Reactor restart 'hints at future'

Huntsville Times

By Brian Lawson

Visit will celebrate TVA effort, says energy deputy

President Bush chose to visit the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Athens today to celebrate the restart of the Unit 1 reactor, the first addition to the U.S. nuclear fleet in more than 10 years, according to a top official at the U.S. Department of Energy.

"Something very significant is going on there," said Clay Sell, deputy secretary of energy. "This (restart) is a significant event which really hints at the future and expanding role nuclear power will play in the U.S. energy sector."

Unit 1 was restarted in May after a five-year $1.8 billion restart project by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The unit was mothballed in 1985 for safety reasons.

Sell said Bush has been stressing the value of nuclear power since 2001 and that TVA and the president got it right earlier than most.

"He's coming to celebrate that and to talk about other policies and what he is seeking to accomplish over the next 18 months," Sell said. "This is something we in the administration and TVA have been talking about for the last few years. We've been staying in communication and working towards this."

While Thursday will be focused on celebration, there will be protesters opposed to nuclear energy and more. Bush has been dogged by low public approval ratings for several months, prompted in large part by public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.

Sara Barczak, safe energy director for the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the Bush visit sends a confusing signal.

"It's ironic that President Bush is coming to visit Browns Ferry to herald a nuclear resurgence, when Browns Ferry Unit 1 is not a new reactor and has not been online in 22 years," Barczak said. "It's not the best location to tout the resurgence of nuclear power."

Sell said Bush will continue to lead on improving U.S. energy fortunes. The 2005 energy bill included incentives and insurance support for new nuclear plant construction. The Bush administration will continue to press the case, Sell said, in support of new plants.

The Energy Department expects two or three companies to file nuclear plant construction and operation license requests with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this fall. Sell said the licensing process could take about three years and that construction on new plants could begin before 2010.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, who supported the Unit 1 restart and construction of a new reactor at the Bellefonte plan near Scottsboro, will accompany Bush to Browns Ferry. Bush will then accompany Sessions to Mobile for a fundraiser for Sessions' 2008 re-election campaign.

Sessions said the Unit 1 restart marks the beginning of a nuclear renaissance. Before the 2005 energy bill was passed there were no preliminary applications for new nuclear plants. Today there are 32, Sessions said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said he hopes the example of Unit 1 "can lead to continued expansion of our nation's nuclear capacity.

"As the Senate continues debate on an energy bill, I hope the president will use Alabama as an example of what low-cost reliable power can do for the economy."

Sessions expects Bush to be well-received.

"I think he'll get a good reaction," Sessions said. "North Alabama is particularly positive about nuclear power. We've lived with it for many years, and we've got a high-tech population that strongly supports it. It will be a great visit, and it will be good for TVA.

"They've done an excellent job bringing the reactor online, on budget and on time, and that's something to celebrate with the president."

U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, a co-chairman of the TVA Caucus in Congress, will also attend the event at Browns Ferry.