Citizens Speak Out as PSC Considers Nuclear Power Expansion

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(APN) ATLANTA — The Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) convened a second round of hearings Monday, January 12, 2009, to determine if the PSC should grant Georgia Power certification to build two new nuclear power generation units at Plant Vogtle in southwest Georgia.

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Photographs by Jonathan Springston

As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is also conducting an environmental impact review process for the proposed plants.

APN raised serious questions about the draft environmental impact report in December 2007 and January 2008, but did not receive satisfactory responses from the NRC.

For one thing, the use of billions of gallons of water will over time lower the height of the Savannah River, and there have been reports of local farmers losing their well water supply. Despite these facts, the NRC classified the proposed plants as having minimal impact on water supply in Georgia.

Also troubling are statistics showing an increase in the cancer rates in Burke County, since the opening of the plant. The NRC admits there are low-level nuclear radioactive emissions from the plants but contends there is not evidence of a link to cancer. The NRC’s response to the cancer statistics was inadequate and not logically sound.

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Photographs by Jonathan Springston

At Monday’s hearing, the PSC’s Public Interest Advocacy staff members and other outside consultants delivered summaries of their pre-filed testimonies and faced cross-examination. Topics of discussion included the cost of the project, risk mitigation, economic impact, engineering, monitoring, and budget forecasts.

Georgia Power says it wants to expand Plant Vogtle to meet future energy needs, but opponents say the expansion is not only too costly but would also cause further public safety and environmental problems.

The Public Interest Advocacy staff recommended on December 19, 2008, that the PSC approve the certification. But the staff outlined several conditions Georgia Power should meet in order to carry out the project.

One key staff recommendation concerns how to pay for the project. The estimated cost for the reactors is $14 billion, with Georgia Power set to pay about $6.4 billion of the total. Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives and municipal power companies would share the remaining cost.

Staff members oppose Georgia Power’s proposed payment model known as “Construction Work in Progress” (CWIP). Under this model, the company would increase rates on Georgia customers now in order to raise around $1.6 billion to help pay for the construction of the reactors before construction is finished.

Currently, Georgia Power has to wait until construction is complete before collecting the tab.

“CWIP is harmful to ratepayers,” PSC staff members said in a summary of their recommendations obtained by APN. “It cost [ratepayers] more, it requires prepayment of taxes, it requires current customers to subsidize future customers, and it reduces the company’s incentive to get the plant in service on time.”

Other CWIP critics argue the method will place an undue burden on consumers during a time of economic hardship.

“This is going past greed and into arrogance,” Neill Herring, Sierra Club lobbyist, said during a press conference before Monday’s hearing. “It’s astounding that these people have the brass… to make this demand of the public.”

Herring noted the Georgia General Assembly rejected the CWIP method in 1980 when Vogtle Units 1 and 2 were under construction.

“Electric customers should not have to pay for a service that will not come on line until 2016 at the earliest,” Krista Brewer, President of the Georgia chapter of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), said at the press conference. “This is a bold and needless move by Georgia Power, especially at a time when so many Georgians are suffering financially.”

Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour (R-Snellville) is planning to introduce a bill, possibly as early as Thursday, that would essentially allow Georgia Power to use the CWIP model should the bill pass, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper’s Political Insider blog.

Critics note any price tag on a project of this scope is never reliable.

Brewer pointed out that Vogtle Units 1 and 2 were initially projected to cost $330 million but had a final price tag of nearly $9 billion.

To combat cost overruns, the PSC staff recommends punishing Georgia Power for going over budget and rewarding them for completing the project under budget.

But Commissioner Stan Wise said this condition would unfairly punish Georgia Power for cost overruns that might be essential for public safety. Kevin Greene, attorney for Georgia Power, indicated the company would not go along with this idea.

Additionally, the staff recommends Georgia Power “provide quarterly updates of financial projections through the first three calendar years of commercial operation” in order to allow the PSC “to monitor the Company’s financial outlook on a timely basis.”

Besides cost overruns, some citizens have serious concerns about what impact Vogtle’s expansion would have on public safety.

Georgia Power proposes building two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy noted during Monday’s hearing that the AP1000 has not been built for commercial service nor has the final design been approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“I know there are certainly a lot of unknowns,” Philip M. Hayet, President of Hayet Power Systems Consulting, said during his testimony.

William R. Jacobs, Jr., Vice President of Generation Support Services, said the new reactors are safer than the Vogtle Units 1 and 2 because of better computer technology.

But Brewer said, “Nuclear plants routinely have small leaks and low-level emissions of radioactive materials” and noted, “the nuclear industry still hasn’t figured out what to do with the highly radioactive and otherwise toxic byproducts of nuclear production.”

During the first hour of Monday’s hearing, nearly a dozen citizens delivered comments expressing some form of concern over public safety.

Jen Kato, an Augusta nurse, said she is “concerned first and foremost with health and human safety.’

“It is absurd to me that we would choose this path over something safe,” she said. “There is no amount of radiation that doesn’t have an effect on human beings.”

Annie Laura Stephens, who said she lives “in the shadow of Vogtle,” said numerous family members are suffering from some form of cancer, presumably, she said, because of radiation from the plant.

“We are on the suffering end of it and the time has come to see something is done for humanity,” she said.

Hearings will resume on Wednesday with witnesses from Commercial Group, Georgia Traditional Manufacturers Association, Georgia Industrial Group, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy scheduled to testify.

After this round of hearings, Georgia Power has until January 26, 2009, to file rebuttal testimony and is set to present it during hearings scheduled for the week of February 09, 2009. The PSC will make a final decision on March 17, 2009.

The NRC also has to approve the expansion plan.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News, and is reachable is jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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