WASHINGTON — The future of nuclear power production hinges on the Tennessee Valley Authority's efforts to restart its long-closed unit at the Browns Ferry plant, industry experts suggested Thursday.

When completed, the $1.8 billion, five-year project to restart Unit 1 at the Browns Ferry site in Huntsville, Ala., would represent the first new production of nuclear power since 1996, when TVA opened its Watts Bar plant. The Browns Ferry unit has been shut down since 1985.

TVA operates three nuclear power plants, which produced about 30 percent of TVA's electricity generated in 2003. The agency serves 8.5 million people in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Jim Asselstine, a research analyst and managing director at Lehman Brothers Inc., said in written testimony that what happens with the Browns Ferry project could have a huge impact on whether new nuclear power plants are built in this country.

"TVA's experience can be very valuable in building confidence within the industry and within the financial community that the scope of construction work on a new plant can be managed effectively," Asselstine wrote to a Senate Energy and Resources subcommittee.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chaired the subcommittee hearing, was more pointed in noting that excessive construction costs, safety concerns and the Enron scandal have made potential investors wary of nuclear power plants, leading to increased reliance on natural gas that is costlier.