Southeast of Augusta, perched on Georgia’s eastern border, two huge cooling towers with rising plumes of steam keep the nuclear reactors below from melting down as they produce electricity for much of Georgia. These towers and their reactors (Units 1 and 2) are named for a former Alabama Power and Southern Company board chair, Alvin W. Vogtle.
Now, two more reactors with their slightly larger cooling towers are in the final stages of construction on this site and are close to operation according to majority owner Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the Southern Company. The new reactors, Vogtle 3 and 4, were first slated to cost $14 billion. Now their price tag will surely exceed $30 billion. The plants were scheduled to be in commercial operation for the summers of 2016 and 2017, but Georgia Power now predicts Unit 3 will come online in early 2023 followed by Unit 4 later that year. We’ll see.
After the United States ended World War II by developing and then dropping powerful nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists searched for a peaceful use for nuclear technology, resulting in the development of nuclear power to generate electricity. Today we have 54 commercial nuclear power plants with 92 reactors in operation in the United States. While Georgia only has two of these plants within our borders (Plant Edwin I. Hatch in addition to Vogtle), our state is actually ringed by a number of nuclear power sites: Plant Oconee in northwest South Carolina, Browns Ferry in northeast Alabama, Sequoyah and Watts Bar in southern Tennessee, and Plant Farley in southeast Alabama on the Chattahoochee River. In addition, there are two nuclear weapons facilities: the Trident Bay Naval Base in extreme southeast coastal Georgia and the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina just across the Savannah River from Plant Vogtle. The largest concentration of various forms of nuclear material is around Shell Bluff, a mostly African-American community, near SRS and Plant Vogtle. And if the two additional reactors come online, Plant Vogtle itself will be the largest nuclear power plant in the United States.
During the 1960s and 70s, when commercial nuclear plants were being developed, nuclear power was marketed as the wave of the future. But accidents, including Fukushima in Japan (2011), Chernobyl in the Ukraine (1986) and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania (1979), have raised questions about public safety.
In Georgia, Plant Hatch’s two units finished construction in 1974 and 1978. Then Plant Vogtle Units 1 and 2 came on line in 1987 and 1989. And now Vogtle Units 3 and 4 are in the final stages of construction. These are the only two commercial reactors in the United States under construction and none are in the planning stages as problems with nuclear power have become more clear and new objections have emerged.
Nuclear power involves the use of highly radioactive materials that can cause death, serious injuries, burns, cancers and birth defects. Even a partial meltdown can contaminate the air, water, and soil where it might remain for centuries. Low level radiation is always being emitted from operating reactors. If any of the nuclear plants in or near Georgia were to have a major accident, it is hard to predict where or how far radioactive material might spread. But it’s a safe bet that Georgians would be at risk.
In addition to radiation concerns, nuclear has other big problems. One that has virtually stopped the construction of other nuclear facilities in the U.S. is the cost. Building nuclear plants requires huge amounts of up-front capital, and construction takes years to complete. Another big problem is how to permanently and safely store the spent fuel rods from reactors and how to dispose of low level nuclear waste. Neither the nuclear industry nor the federal government has developed a permanent storage solution, despite several costly failed ideas, including underground storage at Yucca Mountain. Nowspent fuel nuclear waste is stored on site at each nuclear power plant, awaiting a solution. And the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates thatcurrently 86,000 metric tons of spent fuel is stored at 75 U.S. reactor sites.
These problems using nuclear energy for electricity production persist, but advocates for nuclear power, in recent years, have been arguing that despite hurdles, we should build more nuclear power as an answer to global warming, saying that nuclear power is clean and green. This is not true and nuclear advocates just need to stop saying this.
While nuclear reactors do not emit carbon like a coal or natural gas plant does, the whole cycle for nuclear power production has a large carbon footprint including the construction of the plant itself, and production of nuclear fuel. Nuclear power requires uranium, which is a finite mineral that has to be mined from the earth, refined, and transported to a nuclear plant. In addition, fossil fuels are used and CO2 is emitted during the lengthy construction process for new reactors, and lastly, low levels of CO2 are emitted during normal operation of a reactor.
While the nuclear industry continues to advocate nuclear power as a solution to global warming, the carbon footprint, construction delays and huge construction costs as exemplified in the Plant Vogtle expansion have undermined that argument. Nuclear plants take too long to construct, are not carbon neutral, cost too much money and have numerous other problems that prevent it from being a realistic solution to climate change.
“You can still get greater carbon reductions faster for less money by going to renewable energy and energy efficiency, regardless of whose carbon footprint is bigger than the other one, which is a sort of rabbit hole that we get dragged down into sometimes.” says Linda Gunter, International Specialist at Beyond Nuclear.
Ratepayer Robbery: The True Cost of Plant Vogtle delves into the financial burden of the Vogtle expansion on residential customers through the mechanism called Construction Work in Progress or CWIP. These charges were a gift to Georgia Power from the state legislature to help finance the Vogtle expansion. These charges do not end until the two new reactors go online.
A final concern with nuclear power is the negative aspects of the industry on indigenous peoples, women and people of color. Most of the uranium mining in the U.S. is on Native American lands. It is no accident that nuclear power plants are located closer to African American, and poor rural communities. And women and children are more susceptible to the effects of radiation. This articlegives more details.
As we possibly near the end of construction, Daniel Tate, research and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute says, “Plant Vogtle expansion has been the boondoggle of all boondoggles, and we know now it may be the most expensive power plant ever built on planet Earth. Regular Georgians have been fleeced by Georgia Power with the assistance of the Public Service Commission. Its oversight and review up to this point has fallen down on the job. Georgia Power has actually been able to profit, despite its delays and mismanagement.”
Looking forward, the next big battle will be how much of the substantial cost overruns should be paid for by rate payers, and how much will have to be absorbed by Georgia Power and Southern Company shareholders. Historically, the Public Service Commission has not been willing to substantially burden utility shareholders for management’s mistakes. Utilities, but especially Georgia Power, actively lobby for less regulation.They make substantial campaign contributions to both legislators and Public Service commissioners to get more favorable treatment. But Public Service Commissioners are elected statewide, and they must be held accountable and treat ratepayers fairly.
This November, two Public Service Commission seats are up for election. Tim Echols is the Republican incumbent for District 2. He is being challenged by Democratic Patty Durand, (although her residency is being challenged). In District 3, Fitz Johnson is an incumbent who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp and is now running for a full term. He is being challenged by Democrat Sheila Edwards. All Public Service Commissioners are elected statewide, but must reside in one of five districts. Interestingly, this method is also being challenged as a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. A ruling is expected soon.
The Southern Company recently disclosed profits for the second quarter of 2022 were 1.1 billion. For the same period last year, profits were only $372 million. Yet Georgia Power, which is solely owned by The Southern Company, has recently asked state regulators to approve a nearly 12% increase in the rates customers pay for their electricity over the next three years.
The question on the table for the next few years is who will absorb all the extra costs for the two new units. Independent monitors have testified before the PSC over and over that these huge cost overruns have been due largely to mismanagement and have not been “reasonable and prudent costs.” Therefore, the power company shareholders not rate payers should be responsible for these expenses.
“So I think that’s the key issue moving forward … will the Public Service Commission let them get away with those types of misrepresentation and mismanagement?” Tate says. It is critical that voters and environmental advocates hold the elected members of the Public Service Commission to treat rate payers fairly and not require them, many of whom are low income, to pay for Georgia Power’s mismanagement and quest for big profits.
Despite all, it’s clear that Georgians are going to be stuck with the costs and risks of the only two new nuclear reactors in the United States for decades to come.
Krista Brewer is a native Atlantan who has a professional background in writing, reporting and editing. For several decades she has closely followed Georgia politics, focusing on topics such as healthcare, voting and immigrant rights, and budget and environmental issues. She is active on Twitter and invites readers to follow her @KristaRBrewer