Georgia Power takes a fresh look at nuclear power 

Nearly two decades after its last reactor went online, the electric utility warily eyes a return to technology that once drove it to the brink of bankruptcy

Longtime environmental lobbyist Neill Herring remembers cutting his teeth in the early '70s as a volunteer activist in Atlanta, opposing the licensing of a new nuclear power plant on the banks of the Savannah River.

Even in that era of sit-ins and "Ecology now" posters, Herring didn't fall back on the emotional arguments favored by what he termed the "radiation fear crowd." Instead, he attacked the bottom line.

click to enlarge An average of 43 million gallons of water escapes from the Plant Vogtle cooling towers each day in the form of steam. - GEORGIA POWER
  • Georgia Power
  • An average of 43 million gallons of water escapes from the Plant Vogtle cooling towers each day in the form of steam.

Georgia Power hadn't justified its proposed Plant Vogtle nuclear facility, he explained in testimony to state utility regulators, because the company hadn't sufficiently studied safer, less expensive options, such as energy conservation and other renewable resources. In fact, he argued, if the state would only force its namesake power producer to find ways to curb growth in energy demand, the plant wouldn't be needed at all.

Too costly. Unnecessary. And there were less risky alternatives. The message couldn't compete with utility lobbying clout. Plant Vogtle – about half an hour south of Augusta – was approved but, because of calamitous cost overruns, only two of the planned four reactors were built.

Now, three decades later, the state is adding new population at a furious pace, and nuclear energy is being widely touted as an antidote to global warming. Again, Georgia Power is looking to the atom. Again, the site is Vogtle. And, again, the company has momentum on its side.

Yet, Herring says, the arguments against a Vogtle expansion remain essentially the same. Georgia Power still has done little to explore renewable energy resources or, even more obviously, to take advantage of what he calls the "low-hanging fruit" of energy efficiency. At the same time, the company sells power to Florida that could be used to serve Peach State residents. And the threat of environmental damage to the Savannah River is even more serious today than it was in the '70s.

But, again, the question of Georgia's nuclear future comes down to a big unknown: cost.

While Georgia Power officials claim advances in nuclear-plant design have made construction relatively quick and inexpensive, the company has yet to give state regulators a firm estimate of the eventual price tag for Vogtle. Since no new nuclear plants have been built in the United States in the last 30 years, many scientists and industry watchers aren't convinced meaningful estimates are even possible.

Says Sam Shelton, director of research for Georgia Tech's Strategic Energy Institute: "The bugaboo with nuclear energy is that nobody knows how much it's going to cost because no contractor will build on a fixed-price contract."

Thus, the decision on how to meet Georgia's future energy needs carries an unknown element of risk – and the stakes could hardly be higher. If Georgia Power takes a gamble on nuclear and finds itself in another money pit at Vogtle, it's conceivable that utility rates could soar and the economic development of the entire state could suffer.

Despite the proposed Vogtle expansion, the admittedly jaded Herring theorizes that the company is simply keeping its options open.

"There is reason to believe that Georgia Power doesn't really want to build Vogtle 3 and 4, but they're trying to keep their shareholders happy," he says. "They'd much rather build coal plants because nuclear is a crapshoot – they have no idea what these plants will cost."

These are heady days for nuke boosters.

Ronald Reagan was still in his first term when the last new U.S. plant was green-lighted, but the current atmosphere in Washington suggests all systems are go for a full-scale revival of nuclear energy. Call it the Al Gore Effect: Political pressure to reduce greenhouse gases is getting stronger at the same time that population growth, bigger houses and more gadgets are pushing up demand. As a result, the nation's energy producers are looking for new sources of power that won't expose them to future taxes or penalties for spewing carbon, which is believed to be the main contributor to global warming.

Until recently, that role was largely filled by natural gas, a comparatively clean fuel that doesn't require building the kind of large, expensive plants needed for coal or nuclear. But since 2000, the price of natural gas has shot through the roof, making it by far the least cost-effective fuel to burn. Many gas-fired plants in Georgia are switched on for only a few hours each summer to help the state's utilities meet spikes in peak electricity demand.

Although the state is home to more than 30 gas-fired power plants, Georgia Power's corporate parent, the Southern Co., has never been much for clean energy. The Atlanta-based company is the country's second-largest utility operator, with 71 power plants and subsidiaries in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. It's also one of the nation's most visible opponents of pollution controls, carbon regulations and even the notion of human-induced climate change.

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