Georgia View: Hold That Knee

The largest construction project in the history of Georgia is under way near Augusta. The estimated cost of bringing two next-generation nuclear power generators online at Plant Vogtle is $14 billion. Site construction employment is expected to peak at 3,500 jobs during 2013 and 2014, with 800 new permanent employees needed to staff the new units when they begin operation in 2016 and 2017. A bright spot, some might even say “glowing,” in a time of great economic uncertainty.

Meanwhile, half a world away, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Com-pany (TEPCO) are still struggling with the aftermath of a natural disaster that virtually wiped out four of six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Since the March 11 tsunami that followed a massive earthquake, utility regulators and legislators around the world have moved to build new policy around knee-jerk reactions. Germany is completely abandoning its plans for more nuclear. Even the Chinese, who have the most new plants under development, have found cause for pause.

And yet the vast majority of nuclear reactors around the globe are safely operating, using the same boiling water reactor designs engineered by General Electric during the 1960s.

However, the new AP1000 reactors under construction in Burke County and in China are utilizing engineering and technology enhanced by decades of innovation, as well as new safety systems, significantly less prone to failure due to human error or bad decision making.

These next generation reactors at Vogtle should become the first of a new fleet, over time replacing more than 100 aging reactors within the United States. The industry also continues to battle with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) over its promise of a permanent waste storage solution. At Vogtle, and elsewhere, the bulk of 50 million metric tons of nuclear waste is now stored in massive cooling pools. Failure of such waste containment structures at Dai-ichi are what may ultimately cause the most significant releases of radiation.

France, in contrast, now reprocesses more than 1,000 metric tons of spent fuel every year without incident at its La Hague chemical complex in Normandy. Operated by the state-controlled nuclear giant AREVA, this sprawling and secured complex has racked up a good, though not unblemished, environmental record.

President Carter ended the reprocessing of spent fuel during his administration. President Reagan lifted that ban, but the U.S. government only recently started a small pilot nuclear waste recycling program at the Savannah River Site (SRS), also near Augusta. Fears of misuse or of the plutonium by-products of reprocessing falling into the wrong hands made reprocessing a political football for decades. However, the larger footprint and post-9/11 security enhancements at Vogtle also make that site a logical location to consider recycling the tons of spent fuel already there.

The NRC, White House, Congress, Georgia Public Service Commission and the Georgia General Assembly now have the benefit of “hindsight” – looking back at what went wrong at Dai-ichi. Southern Company has an established and laudable track record operating nuclear plants in Alabama and Georgia. The nuclear power industry collaboratively shares best practices.

Retrofitting older plants with better safety systems and command/control plans and licensing additional new plants with superior technology and engineering seems a much safer bet than simply mothballing nuclear plants.

The state of Georgia, Georgia Power, Southern Company and its many partners have five more years to get this right before throwing the “on” switch. Five more years for developing redundant back-up systems, crisis plans and chains of command. Five more years of build out on the most advanced and sophisticated nuclear plant on the planet.

The state’s leadership should remain active stewards and partners in the development of this mini-city, which will eventually provide power to more than 1.1 million households in Georgia. They simply have to get it right. Wrong isn’t an option. Perhaps that priority will make those new kilowatts and volts from Vogtle a bit less jolting.

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