GreenRoom: April 2010

In a dramatic endorsement of nuclear energy, President Barack Obama has announced $8.3 billion in low- interest stimulus loans for construction of two more nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro. This huge chunk of dough means that opposition to the $14 billion nuclear expansion program is unlikely to stop Georgia from becoming the first state in decades to build new nuclear power plants. The new reactors will likely be online in the next few years.

Georgia’s existing nuclear facilities – Vogtle 1 and 2 and Edwin I. Hatch in Baxley, originally built in the ’80s – supply around 18 percent of Georgia’s power. Much of the opposition that halted further nuclear construction in the ’80s was based on safety concerns that made “nuclear” a bad word. Since then Vogtle and Hatch have operated without incident, and Southern Company (parent company of Georgia Power) found fairly little opposition to SB 31, the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act that passed in the legislature last year. SB 31 lets Southern charge customers in advance for building Vogtle 3 and 4 and will reportedly save the customers $300 million over the long haul, with a 9 percent spike in their bills for the total project that would level out over time.

Surprisingly few customers squawked over the unprecedented legislation, and the Public Service Com-mission also greenlighted the project. This had to have made a difference in Georgia’s being chosen over similar facilities planned in Maryland, South Carolina and Texas.

The Augusta region has also demonstrated that it has the necessary workforce. The funding announcement complements another made in 2009 for $1.6 billion for the Savannah River Site (SRS), a nuclear storage facility across the river in South Carolina, to disperse 79,000 acres of nuclear waste. (Southern has indicated it can store its own waste underground – but we still prefer it go elsewhere.)

The SRS money was projected to create 3,000 temporary jobs in the region, while Southern Company predicts Vogtle 3 and 4 will create 3,000 temporary and 800 permanent jobs.

The environmental challenges involved in a project of this scale are intense. Approximately 116 miles of the Savannah River between Savannah and Augusta would have to be dredged to accommodate an estimated 100 barge shipments to Plant Vogtle. Future droughts could threaten the ability to provide water to the reactors, which are expected to use 55 to 88 million gallons of water per day from the Savannah River with 50-75 percent consumptive loss (Southern Nuclear, 2008). High thermal discharge temperatures could kill valuable fish species. Then there is the high risk of default on the loan. Construction of Vogtle 1 and 2, initially estimated at $330 million, eventually cost $9 billion. The federal commitment reduces this risk. Obama wants a nuclear renaissance as part of his legacy and will use it as a wedge to convince utility companies to agree to carbon emission caps.

Georgia has a new, prominent role in his agenda, which may help in the war with Alabama and Florida over water. Enacting a statewide water conservation plan to handle the needs of Vogtle 3 and 4 without Lake Lanier would take Herculean political force. A less obvious challenge is that of the nuclear renaissance deflecting attention from other alternative resources.

Unfortunately, both Oglethorpe Power (which owns 30 percent of Vogtle) and Georgia Power have halted construction of biomass fuel plants in southwest Georgia. Both utilities cite uncertainty over carbon regulations as the cause, emphasizing that construction can continue later. Seeing nuclear energy thrust forward as these plants sit idle is troubling.

A disproportionate emphasis on nuclear could also deflect attention from the need to conserve. Residential use accounts for roughly three-fourths of all the power used in Georgia.

Obama has also indicated he will continue the manufacture of nuclear weapons ingredients at SRS, so he needs to keep his promise to South Carolina by finding a long-term solution to nuclear waste storage and ceasing production of such dangerous materials.

Dispelling the “Simpsons” myth from the ‘80s and protecting the lives of East Georgia residents will require a high-dollar, 21st century approach to safety, one that will set a new precedent for more nuclear plants to follow. These are a lot of loose threads to pull together.