After Franklin L. Haney made his first million-dollar contribution to a super-PAC, his dream of owning a nuclear power plant took a big step forward.
That gift went to a group to help re-elect President Barack Obama in 2012. Haney followed up with two more million-dollar donations in 2012 and 2014, both of which went to a committee run by former aides of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Between the first million and the third million, U.S. officials cleared Haney’s company to eventually receive as much as $2 billion in tax credits for owners of nuclear plants that use advanced technology. Federal documents obtained by Bloomberg News show that the approvals came despite two complications: First, the plant in question depends on 40-year-old technology. Second, Haney didn’t own it.
Haney ultimately purchased the unfinished, decades-old nuclear plant in northern Alabama at auction last November. Now, he has what may be an even bigger challenge — getting the mothballed plant into working order and finding customers for its power. That will require billions of dollars and some serious political help: For one thing, the tax credits he qualified for are set to expire in 2021, well before his facility could split its first atom.
While lobbying to extend the credits, Haney made a familiar political move: He gave a fourth million-dollar donation, this one to the inaugural fund of President Donald Trump.
Gaining Trump’s support could be invaluable to Haney’s nuclear ambitions. Over the next 18 months, Trump will have the authority to appoint five of the nine board members who oversee the Tennessee Valley Authority, the government-owned utility that supplies power to 9 million customers in seven states, including Alabama. TVA represents the most likely customer for Bellefonte’s electricity, and Haney said in bid documents that he wants to sell power to the utility. But there’s a problem: TVA has already decided it doesn’t need Bellefonte.
TVA actually developed the plant and owned it until Haney bought it on Nov. 14. The utility’s officials decided to sell Bellefonte after determining in 2015 that they wouldn’t need its energy for 20 years. A new majority on the board could reverse course and decide to buy the plant’s power. Scott Fiedler, a TVA spokesman, said the board is independent, and he declined to speculate on any future decisions.
“There are so many fundamental flaws with it,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental group. “From a need standpoint, from an infrastructure standpoint, from a licensing standpoint, this will never become an operating nuclear power plant.”
Bellefonte is a “white elephant,” according to a December research paper by Chris Gadomski, an analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Skeptics would be justified in wondering how reviving 1960s-era nuclear reactors that have been questionably maintained for decades represents a viable economic opportunity,” Gadomski wrote.
Haney, in his bid proposal, said the price of natural gas has been subject to large spikes, and his plant would offer a long-term source of power at an “attractive and non-fluctuating cost.”