Possible New Nuclear Reactor is Threat to Georgia
(APN) ATLANTA – A possible new nuclear reactor at the plant in Vogtle, Georgia, being plotted by big business and the Republican-controlled State Senate, is posing serious dangerous threats to the people, animals, and environment of Georgia and the region, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.
The Georgia plant is seen as just a test drive for several new nuclear plants being eyed for the US South, Bobbie Paul, Executive Director of Atlanta Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), told APN. “The South is being targeted for eight new nuclear reactors,” Paul said.
When APN tried to contact Georgia Power for information on their current plans, we were directed to send an email to GPC Corporate Communication. That was over a month ago and we still have received no reply to our inquiry.
This past March, the Republican-controlled Georgia Senate passed a resolution urging utility companies to build new nuclear power plants.
The resolution also called for the Public Service Commission (PSC), a five-member body that regulates utilities, to “encourage” this endeavor.
The co-sponsors of the legislation included State Senators Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg), Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), Tommie Williams (R-Lyons), Tim Golden (D-Valdosta), and Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur).
All Republican Georgia State Senators voted yea, while three were not present for the vote.
Six Democratic Georgia State Senators voted nay, including Sens. Brown, Fort, Reed, Tate, R Thomas, and Zamarippa. Zamarippa is retiring but is being replaced by Rep. Nan Orrock, who is an activist with WAND.
Democratic State Senators voting yea included Butler, Golden, Henson, Hooks, Jones, Me V Bremen, Miles, Powell, Seay, Starr, Stoner, and Tarver.
There are at least five reasons why we must not build more nuclear reactors, according to Paul: inherent danger, a rate hike, diversion of resources in building the plant, nuclear waste, and nuclear proliferation.
I. NUCLEAR POWER DANGERS
Nuclear power is inherently dangerous.
More than a half-century of accidents, leaks, and fires – including several in Georgia – have proven humans are fallible and mishaps inevitable.
“We have studies going back to the beginning that show in every community where these facilities are sited, there are higher incidents of cancer, leukemia, birth defects,” Alice Slater, President of Grace Policy Institute (GPI), warned during a panel discussion hosted by the institute, on July 6, 2006.
“The risk associated with this kind of all out political muscle support for nuclear power is that regulatory process gets skewed… And it’s under those conditions you get events like the very disturbing accident at (David Bessey) in 2002 in which the hole in the top of the pressure pistol had essentially occurred through a rusting process, leaving only the stainless steel liner between the plant and a significant loss of cooling accident, of a type for which the safety systems are not designed,” Peter Bradford, former chair of the New York Public Service Commission and Maine Public Utilities Commission, former Commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said during the GPI Panel.
Nuclear power plants release radioactive contaminants, such as tritium, along with hazardous chemicals and heavy metals during routine operation.
“These emissions cause leukemia and cancer over extended periods. It can be a slow, tortuous death,” Jeanine Honicker, WAND activist, told Atlanta Progressive News. “That’s enough to oppose nuclear power, if for no other reason.”
Indeed, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has a “Quarterly Worker Injury/Illness Rate Chart” for the Office of Nuclear Energy which shows incidents occurring every quarter.
On October 29, 2005, fire broke out at Georgia Power’s Edwin I. Hatch nuclear plant located near Baxley. Although the reactor was not affected, mineral oil from the transformer leaked into the Altamaha River as a result of the firefighting effort. Absorption booms were placed in the river and the company said no adverse environmental impact was expected.
Soon after the fire, the Southern Company (Georgia Power’s parent) discovered 5 feet, 8 inches of spent nuclear rods missing. These rods are highly radioactive and extremely dangerous. On August 22, 2006, the company announced they still couldn’t account for the location of 18 inches.
“The company said the fragments were the result of a corrosive water problem at Plant Hatch that broke down fuel rod casings for a period in the 1980s, allowing the fuel rod pieces to fall out,” The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.
August 15, 2006, radioactive, cancer-causing tritium leaked into the groundwater beneath the San Onofre, California, nuclear power plant causing San Clemente officials to shut down their drinking-water well.
“In recent years, tritium leaks have been found at more than a dozen nuclear plants across the nation, prompting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to form a task force this year to study the cause of the contamination” according to The Los Angeles Times.
In March, a tritium leak contaminated millions of gallons of groundwater near a nuclear power plant in Illinois.
II. RATE HIKE
Construction of Georgia’s two existing nuclear plants resulted in the worst rate hike in state utility history. Georgians were told in 1971 it would cost $660 million to build four reactors and the final cost was over $8.7 billion for just two. “And this was just the known costs,” Paul said.
III. DIVERTED RESOURCES IN BUILDING PLANTS
Building new nuclear power plants squanders resources that could be better spent.
“You have to divert an awful lot of money that would have gone into a number of alternatives that would achieve equal or better results. Those include energy efficiency, renewables, and various carbon sequestration alternatives associated with conventional generation,” Bradford said during the GPI Panel.
IV. NUCLEAR WASTE
We have not solved the problem of how to dispose of the waste produced in an atomic reaction, which in some forms is the most hazardous substance on Earth.
Dangerously radioactive spent fuel is being stored around the world.
“To start building a new generation of nuclear power stations before we know what to do with the waste produced by existing plants is grotesquely irresponsible.” George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian UK.
Spent nuclear fuel remains lethal for millions of years and the problem of its safe disposal is but one of the reasons no new permits for nuclear plants have been issued in over thirty years.
We already have more than 50,000 tons of deadly radioactive nuclear waste in this country produced by our current nuclear power plants with no place to put it.
Since their start-up, Plants Vogtle and Hatch have retained their nuclear wastes on site even though Georgia electric ratepayers have paid more than $518.3 million into the Nuclear Waste Fund with nothing to show for their money.
The Bush administration’s recent announcement the Yucca Mountain Repository site, 90 miles outside of Las Vegas, would be ready by 2017 met with derision from US Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV).
“This timetable is a rosy scenario painted to please those desperate to see Yucca Mountain open for business,” Rep. Berkley told the Associated Press. “The proposed nuclear garbage dump at Yucca Mountain still faces serious obstacles before it can be licensed, including additional legal challenges from the State of Nevada.”
This site has been the subject of lawsuits and charges government scientists ignored quality control standards, among other problems. The managing contractor is GOP-linked Bechtel SAIC.
V. NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION
Nuclear energy technology is inescapably linked to nuclear proliferation.
“It has become clear we will never rid the world of nuclear weapons if we do not also rid it of nuclear power. Every state that has sought to develop a weapons programme over the past 30 years – Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq and Iran – has done so by manipulating its nuclear power programme. We cannot deny other states the opportunity to use atomic energy if we do not forswear it ourselves,” Monbiot wrote.
The primary beneficiaries of the Georgia Senate’s resolution will be the contractors slated to be awarded billions of tax dollars to build the plants, as well as the investor-owned utility companies certain to seek rate increases at their customers’ expense.
“The high cost of nuclear power will place an extra burden on many families and business owners who are already having a hard enough time paying for the increasing costs of energy,” Rita Kilpatrick, Georgia Policy Director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said during the GPI Panel.
ALTERNATIVE TO GREENHOUSE GASES?
Our politicians defend their support for new nuclear power plants because the plants themselves don’t emit greenhouse gases which produce global warming.
Indeed, even former US Vice President Al Gore recently said nuclear power was a lesser of two evils compared to technologies producing greenhouse gases. We have about ten years to do something about global warming, Gore said at a recent film screening of An Inconvenient Truth attended by APN; at least the nuclear power option buys us more time.
Others disagree with Gore’s position.
“What dismays me about the present situation is the extent to which the Congress and the administration, and now an occasional state legislature, have rushed to anoint it as the solution to climate change,” former Commissioner Bradford told The New York Times.
“This is a paradox, an administration and a Congress that professes not to believe in climate change, except when it comes to ladling out billions of dollars of subsidies to nuclear power,” Bradford said during the GPI Panel.
“A 2003 MIT study showed a new nuclear power would have to come online every 15 days between 2010 and 2050 to seriously impact future carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants,” Paul told Atlanta Progressive News.
Also, uranium is a finite resource. “Although we may not run out of uranium altogether, we could quickly run out of high-grade, easily exploitable uranium,” Roger Higman, Campaign Coordinator at Friends of the Earth, told Reuters.
Higman referred to studies showing once high-grade uranium ore bodies had been exploited, lower-grade reserves would require a massive energy input to convert them into fuel.
“That would affect the greenhouse impact of the nuclear sector and would make nuclear energy much more expensive,” Higman said.
DEPENDENCE OF FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS
Nor will nuclear energy free us from dependence on foreign governments.
“The US was once the leading producer of uranium, but now ranks eighth in the world. In 2004 we had to import more than 80% of the uranium for US nuclear power plants from foreign sources,” David Schlissel, energy expert from Synapse Energy, Inc., and member of the GPI Panel, said.
WATER USAGE, HURTING MARINE LIFE
Droughts have become more common in Georgia, and nuclear plants require massive amounts of water to operate.
Friends of the Earth warn us the power plant in Vogtle, Georgia, located in eastern Georgia near Waynesboro, uses over 60 million gallons of water per day from the Savannah River.
Two-thirds of the water is lost in evaporation and the remaining third is released back into the river at extremely high temperatures, adversely effecting aquatic life.
“To build a secure energy future for America, we need to expand production of clean, safe nuclear power,” US President George W. Bush said with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, according to a published transcript.
The bill provides generous tax credits, as well as insurance against regulatory delays, and loan guarantees. Earlier legislation gave the industry money to plan new construction.
This administration is providing administrative and regulatory support, including a cap on liability damages in case of an accident.
“There’s $13 billion in this year’s [federal] budget for nuclear subsidies,” GPI President Slater said in the panel.
“Utilities are benefitting from generous incentives,” Paul told Atlanta Progressive News.
“If nuclear power is such a good deal, why do the taxpayers have to subsidize it?” Jeanine Honicker, also with WAND, told Atlanta Progressive News.
“Why aren’t private investors rushing to put their money into this program?” Honicker asked.
ALREADY A DONE DEAL? A TIMELINE:
Georgia Power and the Southern Company continue to insist no final decision has been made to build another reactor at Plant Vogtle.
Atlanta Progressive News finds that difficult to believe given the inexorable progression of successful deals and government rewards towards commencing construction.
In April 2004, the Southern Company, GE Energy, and Westinghouse Electric Co., among others, formed a consortium – NuStart Energy Development LLC – to build nuclear power plants.
Incidentally, GE also owns the NBC television station and news agency.
In November 2004, NuStart received a commitment from the DOE to fund a new program designed to restructure the process of applying for permits to build new nuclear power plants. These taxpayer dollars would save reactor developers hundreds of millions of dollars by paying about half the expense of obtaining construction and operating licenses as well as cutting years off the process by allowing companies to apply for both licenses at the same time.
Public Citizen and other groups denounced the DOE’s actions citing this as another example of corporate welfare and expressed safety concerns.
On December 29, 2004, the Southern Company applied for $245,000 in funding from the DOE to examine “potential” sites for new nuclear power reactors, “including existing sites.” Southern Company said it would decide at a later date to apply for permits to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Georgia Power spokesman John Sell said no decision had yet been made to build a new plant.
In August, 2005, Southern Nuclear Operating Company, another subsidiary of Southern Company, announced the Vogtle site for “possible” construction of new reactors.
In January, 2006, Southern Nuclear Operating Company and Georgia Power selected Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor design for “potential” new nuclear power plants at Vogtle.
Southern said it would file with the NRC in summer 2006 either an application for an Early Site Permit (ESP) or information that would become part of the combined Construction and Operating License (COL) application recently approved by the DOE.
Southern Nuclear officials said they would file for the COL in 2008.
Georgia Power would seek approval from the PSC in 2007, John Sell said, reiterating a final decision had not been made.
Members of the Georgia Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee filed their pro-nuclear resolution in February, 2006. As already mentioned, it was approved in March.
Also in February, 2006, Georgia Power filed a request with the PSC to begin the licensing and pre-construction phase for new reactors at existing sites.
Georgia Power’s share of the costs to prepare an ESP and COL is $51 million and they asked the PSC permission to bill their customers to recover their cost.
Taxpayers were asked to pay for the licensing and pre-construction costs for a reactor which had allegedly not been decided upon yet.
Southern Nuclear named Joseph “Buzz” Miller as Senior Vice President of Nuclear Development on February 23, 2006. This is a new position created to oversee the development of more nuclear reactors.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a public meeting to discuss Southern Nuclear’s plans to submit an ESP application for Plant Vogtle on May 17, 2006.
As reported by True Citizen, the Waynesboro newspaper, attendees were divided between business leaders who appreciated Vogtle’s boost to the local economy, and anti-nuclear activists – Nuclear Watch South, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service – who voiced concerns about nuclear waste, security issues, and thermal release from the facility.
It was again repeated no final decision has been made to begin construction.
On August 19, 2006, the Southern Company asked the NRC to approve an ESP for two new reactors at Vogtle, still stating it has not decided to build them. This puts Southern Company at the front of the pack.
COMMISSIONER STAN WISE
Stan Wise is Chairman of the Georgia PSC. He is also a member of the U.S. Department of Energy State Energy Advisory Board.
Wise won the Republican Primary for his third six-year term to the PSC on July 18, 2006. Wise is an outspoken advocate for new nuclear plants.
Georgia and Louisiana are the only two states that allow regulators to hold behind-closed-doors meetings with the companies they oversee.
Commissioner Angela Speir has sought to have all dialogue take place in public and to forbid commissioners from accepting gifts from the regulated companies, their executives, and lobbyists.
The other commissioners recently voted to continue secret negotiations and Chairman Wise refused to allow Speir’s proposal on corporate gift-giving to come to a vote.
The PSC uses an adversary staff who act as consumer advocates. In March 2006, the commissioners voted 4 to 1 to leave the system as is. The only one who voted to eliminate the advocates was Stan Wise.
In January, he had ordered a review, backed by the utilities, to curtail or eliminate the adversary staff’s ability to challenge rate hikes.
He will run against Democrat Dawn Randolph in November.
Randolph has been endorsed by APN’s Board of Directors.
Although Public Service Commissioners represent specific districts, they are elected on a state-wide basis, so all Georgians will be able to choose between Wise and Randolph.
Georgia has an abundance of alternative energy sources, including wind, solar, wave and bioenergy. Using non-nuclear means of energy production would hold down utility bills, reduce global warming, and not exacerbate our drought conditions. Most important is the safety of other means of producing electricity compared to the perils of nuclear power.
New technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions will make fossil fuels safer for the environment.
“We’re against nuclear power,” Georgia Sierra Club spokeswoman, Colleen Kiernan, said.
The full potential of alternative sources has yet to be enthusiastically embraced by our government.
Betty Clermont is a Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.