Dispute over blocked sale of Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in federal court this week

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The first steps in what could be a drawn-out court battle over the fate of the Bellefonte Nuclear plant will take place this week.

U.S. District Judge Liles Burke has set a status conference for Thursday morning in the lawsuit filed by Nuclear Development LLC against the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The lawsuit was filed Nov. 30, the same day TVA effectively pulled out of an $111 million deal to sell the unfinished plant in Jackson County to the Nuclear Development group, which is led by Chattanooga-based developer Franklin Haney.

Estimates vary about what it would cost to complete the plant. TVA estimates it could cost more than $8 billion to finish one reactor, while Nuclear Development estimates it could finish both reactors for about that much money. TVA has spent about $5 billion on the plant. It first began construction on it in the 1970s but later abandoned it in the face of rising TVA debt. There’s been more than one proposal to complete the work, but TVA decided a few years back to auction the property.

Nuclear Development was the high bidder in 2016 for the plant, with a winning bid of $111 million. The balance of the money was due last month.

The deal was set to be completed Nov. 30, but the utility said Nuclear Development failed to acquire construction permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. TVA said that failure means that under federal law the sale couldn’t be completed.

NRC officials said a permit is necessary for construction, but if there’s no nuclear material at the plant yet, as is the case, a construction permit isn’t necessary for a company to acquire a dormant nuclear plant.

Nuclear Development says TVA never raised the concern until early November, just six days before the original closing date for the sale, although the deal had been pending for two years.  The group also claims they asked TVA to extend the purchase deadline until May 2019 in order to address the permit issue, but TVA declined.

Nuclear Development is asking the court to either compel TVA to move forward with the sale, or order TVA to repay Nuclear Development the estimated $30 million it has spent so far on a down payment for the purchase and related maintenance costs.

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