Design OK’d for reactors
Nuclear commission’s 5-0 vote pushes Vogtle expansion step closer.
Final license for heavy construction needed.
Kristi E. Swartz
Friday, December 23, 2011
Georgia moved one step closer to getting more electricity from nuclear power Thursday as federal regulators approved the design for what could be the first newly permitted reactors the nation has built from scratch in three decades.
The decision helps clear the path for two reactors to be built at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle, near Augusta, and signals the return of the nation’s nuclear power industry, which was stalled for nearly 30 years because of high costs and a protracted regulatory process.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval of the design means it can be used as a template for other utilities wanting to build nuclear plants, saving time and money. Each of the nation’s existing 104 reactors has its own unique design, which had made the approval process longer and more expensive.
Thursday’s 5-0 vote will be published in the federal register in seven days. After that, the commission can meet to decide whether to approve the final license needed to start heavy construction at Vogtle.
“It’s really very significant and a big reversal of a trend here, ” said Cham Dallas, head of the University of Georgia’s Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense.
Executives from Georgia Power and its parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., first went public with plans to add reactors at Vogtle in 2005. The utility is part of a group of power companies that want to add two reactors at Vogtle. The company is responsible for $6.1 billion of the estimated $14 billion in costs. Georgia Power’s sister company, Southern Nuclear, which will operate the reactors, filed an application to expand Vogtle in March 2008.
Georgia Power’s customers already are paying for the project’s financing costs through a fee on monthly bills. That fee — currently $3.88 a month but set to increase incrementally to $8.74 a month by 2015 — will go away once the reactors start producing power in 2016 and 2017, but it will be replaced by the amount of the construction costs.
Company executives have said it’s too early to estimate how much of an impact the construction costs would have on customer bills. Any change in rates would have to be approved first by the Georgia Public Service Commission.
The controversial fee for the financing costs was approved by the state Legislature and the PSC. Stan Wise, PSC chairman, said Georgia Power’s project would not have gone forward without it.
“The financing of the next generation of nuclear plants is so expensive that Wall Street wasn’t going to give its blessing to anybody that didn’t have some way to prepay expenses in advance of the turn-on date, ” Wise told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We heard that from Washington with the [Department of Energy]; we heard that from Wall Street.”
The commission signed off on a modified version of the AP1000 reactor from Westinghouse. The design, originally approved in late 2005, is one of four designs in front of the commission for review. The others are from GE Hitachi Nuclear, AREVA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Besides Georgia Power, four other utilities — Florida Power & Light, Progress Energy Florida, Progress Energy North Carolina and SCANA — want to use the AP1000 for nuclear projects.
“The commission’s action confirms the AP1000 design is safe and meets all regulatory requirements. The commission now has all of the technical information needed to issue the Vogtle [combined operating license], ” said Tom Fanning, Southern Co. chairman, president and chief executive officer.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rules typically have to be published in the register for 30 days, but the agency has agreed to make the rule effective immediately — which means the commission can decide whether to approve Southern Nuclear’s construction license at any time after it is published.
Southern executives had expected the commission to complete its safety review of the reactor by September, but the agency stalled the procedure after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Some critics say even Thursday’s approval is too soon.
“We don’t see what the rush is for design certification for any reactor without reviewing the lessons of Fukushima, ” said Ed Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The “AP” stands for “advanced passive, ” which roughly describes the safety aspects. Some reactor designs include a series of motors and valves that push water over the reactor core to cool it if an accident happens. In the case of the AP1000, the “passive” design relies on automatic valves, gravity and the natural circulation of air to dump water onto the reactor to cool it in case of an emergency.
“In the existing plants, those safety features rely on redundancy: layer upon layer upon layer of protective safety features, ” said Cheri Collins, general manager of external alliances for Southern Nuclear. “The AP1000 incorporates more than 50 years of operator lessons learned. The safety features that were designed into the plant are reliable … they will keep that plant safe in the event of the loss of all electrical power.”
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Nuclear timeline at Plant Vogtle
1987: Vogtle’s first nuclear unit began commercial operation in May.
1989: Vogtle’s second nuclear unit began commercial operation in May.July 2005: Georgia Power says new nuclear reactors likely will be built at Vogtle.
2005: Congress passes the Energy Policy Act, which includes a loan-guarantee program.August 2006: Southern Nuclear applies for an early site permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to expand Plant Vogtle.July 2007: Georgia Public Service Commission approves Georgia Power’s preliminary request for two reactors at Vogtle.
2007: Congress passes energy bill that includes expanding the loan-guarantee program to include nuclear power plants.
March 31, 2008: Southern Nuclear files application with NRC for combined Construction and Operating License (COL).
April 2008: Georgia Power reaches agreement to buy two reactors from Westinghouse.February 2009: Legislature approves bill to let Georgia Power charge customers early for Vogtle’s financing costs and taxes.
March 2009: PSC approves Vogtle expansion project and its cost.
Aug. 26, 2009: Southern Nuclear receives early site permit from NRC.January 2011: Nuclear fee for financing costs and taxes is added to monthly bills.
Dec. 22, 2011: NRC approves Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor design, which will be used at Vogtle.
February 2010: Obama administration grants Vogtle project $8.3 billion in loan guarantees.
February 2010: Georgia Power tells the PSC the costs of Plant Vogtle will be reduced.
June 18, 2010: Southern Co. reaches agreement with DOE to accept terms for a conditional commitment for loan guarantees.
Feb. 9, 2012: NRC approves Southern’s request to build new reactors at Plant Vogtle.
Sources: Southern Co.’s nuclear division (Southern Nuclear); U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; staff research
New reactors on verge of final OK
Public is footing the bill; execs say modern plants can’t be built otherwise
Kristi E. Swartz
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Federal regulators are expected to sign off in the next few weeks on the United States’ first new nuclear power reactors in three decades, a $14 billion project near Augusta.
But the move by Atlanta-based Southern Co. and its Georgia Power subsidiary to build two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, in Burke County, may not have happened without financial cushions provided by consumers and taxpayers.
One cushion comes from the federal government, which is promoting U.S. energy independence as well as cleaner options. Taxpayers are guaranteeing more than $8 billion in loans for the Vogtle project.
The other cushion comes from the 2.4 million Georgia Power customers. Unlike the nuclear construction boom in the 1970s when reactors were built and then consumers paid for them, Georgia Power customers are already footing the bill for the Vogtle project — even though it hasn’t received final approval yet.
Both developments transfer financial risk away from Southern Co. and its shareholders and toward consumers and taxpayers. If there are cost overruns — as there were when Vogtle was originally built — customers will largely be on the hook.
Southern Co. and proponents of the project agree that it’s a substantial investment by the public, but they say it’s a necessity. Modern plants are just too expensive.
“There’s no project like this that would be built without that kind of [regulatory and financial] support, ” Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning said in an interview last week.
That’s partly because of what happened during the previous nuclear construction boom.
The first two reactors that started producing electricity at Vogtle about 25 years ago ran over budget by more than $8 billion and took 16 years to build — not a model that would be accepted today, said industry players, regulators and consumer advocates.
Projections vs. reality
Construction at the original Vogtle was stopped twice: once in 1974 for financing reasons and again after a partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979 triggered more than 1,000 new regulations. Some of them caused parts of the Vogtle project to be torn down and rebuilt, and that drove up costs dramatically.
“Unless the industry tweaked the way they did things, I doubt another nuclear unit would ever be built again. It was such a disaster — not from a safety perspective, but from what we expected these things to cost and what they really cost, ” said David Parker, a utilities analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co.
In the end, state utility regulators forced Georgia Power to eat $1 billion of the final price tag, but consumers still paid an extra $7 billion. That drove up a typical monthly household electric bill by more than 12 percent.
In 2009, a new financial template emerged. After heavy lobbying, a change in state law and regulatory policy paved the way for Georgia Power to start collecting money from consumers for the reactors before the project received the final OK.
About 20 states have adopted ways to help utilities finance the high cost of power plant projects while they’re being built. Analysts say less money has to be borrowed if a utility is receiving revenue while the project is getting built. Also, it may allow a utility to borrow money at a lower interest rate because it would have less outstanding debt on its books. This, proponents say, equates to a smaller rate hike for customers in the short term instead of a larger one later.
“Three percent a year versus 30 percent, that seems to be more plausible, ” Parker said.
Neill Herring, a veteran environmental lobbyist and Georgia Power critic, said Vogtle’s expansion plans would not have happened if Georgia did not adopt this new procedure. But he is angered by what he sees as unfairness.
“Ratepayers aren’t supposed to pay for anything that isn’t in use and useful, ” he said, referring to the fact that the reactors at Vogtle haven’t been completed. “You have a monopoly, and there’s no risk, particularly when the risk you do have is borne by others.”
To sell the plan to the 2009 Legislature, Georgia Power lobbyists and the bill’s sponsors touted a $1.30 per month initial increase, saying customer bills would increase by that amount each year for seven years.
But in 2011, the initial fee started at $3.88 a month. It will increase to $8.74 a month by 2015. The fee will end once reactors start producing power in 2016 and 2017. But it will be replaced by the amount of the construction and operating costs, currently estimated at $4.4 billion. Georgia Power officials said they do not yet know the impact that will have on monthly bills.
Rate of return
Georgia Power is building the reactors with a group of other utilities and is responsible for $6.1 billion of the estimated $14 billion in costs. Haunted by the massive cost overruns with the first two Vogtle reactors, utility regulators review the schedule and construction costs of the expansion project every six months. The Georgia Public Service Commission has hired an independent monitor to act as an early-warning system to any cost and scheduling problems so they can be addressed right away.
The PSC regulates Georgia Power’s rate of return on its investment. Currently, the rate of return is set at a relatively lucrative 11.15 percent. Georgia Power made $1.15 billion in 2011, a 20 percent increase from 2010, the company reported last week.
What’s more, the PSC has taken a step to ensure that rate of return isn’t threatened. It denied a proposal that would have cut into Georgia Power’s profit margin should the Vogtle project run more than $300 million over budget.
In exchange, the utility agreed to let the PSC examine any previously approved costs at Vogtle should the project exceed its budget. Customers would not have to pay for something deemed the utility’s fault.
Besides these state actions, the federal government has helped the project. It wants to decrease America’s reliance on foreign oil by increasing domestic energy production, and it sees nuclear power as part of the answer.
U.S. taxpayers are providing $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for the project. That will allow Southern to borrow money at a lower interest rate, saving the company — and eventually its customers — money over the long term.
Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace who later left the organization to start his own environmental group, Greenspirit, said the Southern plan is equitable.
“The utility is taking some risk. The government in the form of taxpayers is taking some risk, ” said Moore, an advocate of nuclear energy. “The loan guarantee is just like a co-sign on a loan.”
Southern was the first of the utilities to receive federal loan guarantees during this renewed push for nuclear energy. Decisions affecting plans by other utilities have been delayed, as the White House reviews the loan guarantee program after the controversy involving Solyndra. The solar-panel maker accepted $535 million in federal loan guarantees before declaring bankruptcy last year.
Georgia Power executives have said that the Plant Vogtle expansion project would have cost as much as $1 billion more than projected without the federal loan guarantees and the utility’s ability to collect financing costs from its customers early.
“The way we designed it is to be able to pass through every penny of the benefit to our customers, ” said Fanning, the Southern CEO. “Was it an appropriate incentive? Absolutely. Would we take advantage of it? Absolutely.”
All eyes on regulators
The industry has been waiting 33 years to restart its nuclear engine after Three Mile Island led federal regulators to overhaul safety guidelines at nuclear plants across the country. Construction on about 30 reactors was finished in the 1980s. The industry stood essentially still until the 2000s, when market conditions sparked renewed interest in nuclear power. Natural gas prices began to spike, while environmentalists pushed for regulations on coal — which Southern Co. relies on heavily — that would increase its cost as an energy source.
Now, all eyes are on the federal regulators. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to meet soon to decide whether to approve the critical license Southern Co. and its subsidiary, Southern Nuclear, need to start major construction at Vogtle. Until now, the utility has prepared the site by backfilling two 90-feet holes with soil, laying pipes to transport water from the Savannah River to cooling towers, and building a retaining wall, among other things.
A blessing from the NRC would signal that Southern has followed all of the project’s procedures so far. The staff then can go ahead and issue what’s called a combined-operating license.
Most experts believe that will happen soon.
“No company is going to go out and spend a half-billion dollars getting the pre-construction work without the knowledge that regulators are supporting this plant and will help you build it, ” said Mark Barnett, a utility analyst with the Morningstar investment research firm. “They are able to recover the cost of construction, and they go back every half-year or so to discuss those costs. Without that, I’m almost 100 percent certain Southern would not have gone ahead with this.”
By embracing nuclear power, the federal government is hoping to incrementally move the nation away from foreign oil. Nearly 30 reactors were slated to be built in this country over the next several years, although some utilities have been pulling back lately. A lack of financial backing, diminished demand for electricity, a fear of increasing safety regulations and cheaper natural gas have given some pause.
At the same time, the U.S. utilities that are considering more reactors are going in the opposite direction of some of their counterparts overseas. Some European countries and Japan are starting to pull away from nuclear, mostly because of safety and regulatory concerns after Japan’s disastrous Fukushima Dai-ichi accident last year.
Germany, for example, has decided to shut down its nuclear reactors by 2022. France is reviewing the safety of its older nuclear plants, and pressure has grown to shut as many as half of them down. Japan will not build new plants.
Even Southern is hedging its bets, investing in natural gas in the short-term while it decreases its reliance on coal. Environmental regulations could require Southern’s utilities to add pricey pollution controls on several of its coal plants or face shuttering some units altogether. Recent environmental data showed that the nation’s top three greenhouse gas-producing coal plants belong to Southern’s utilities.
Vogtle’s new reactors won’t appreciably increase the nation’s energy independence, but analysts say it will be a start.
Currently, nuclear power makes up about 16 percent of Southern’s energy mix across its four-state territory. Adding two reactors at Vogtle will move the needle to about 20 percent. And that’s likely where it will stay for a while.
“It’s so expensive, and it takes 10 years to build, ” Fanning said. “Vogtle will be the only new nuclear that we add by the end of the decade because it takes so long.”
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Time to pay the bill
When the two original nuclear units at Plant Vogtle were planned, the total cost estimate was $660 million. But that was in 1971, before the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. That caused the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to tighten standards and force utilities to make changes in training, emergency response planning and safety requirements.
Increased regulatory rules, combined with a sharp increase in demand for materials and double-digit interest rates in the 1980s, were key reasons the cost to build nuclear reactors began to soar.
Here’s how Vogtle construction costs changed over the years:
Cost estimate in 1971 to build the first two Vogtle units: $660 million
Final cost, in 1987, to build the first two Vogtle units: $8.9 billion
Estimated cost in 2012 to build two new units at Plant Vogtle: $14 billion
Lower electric bills …
Nuclear fuel prices are the cheapest and the least volatile when compared with coal and natural gas. Georgia Power passes the cost of fuel directly to consumers in their electricity bills.
Utility’s cost for nuclear fuel per kilowatt hour in 2010: 0.66(cents)
Utility’s cost for coal fuel per kilowatt hour in 2010: 4.53(cents)
Utility’s cost for gas and oil fuel per kilowatt hour in 2010: 5.75(cents)
… but construction costs are more expensive
Nuclear reactors are the most expensive power stations to build, typically followed by coal-fired and natural gas power plants.
What about radioactive waste?
Lack of national policy exacerbates problem.
Southern Co. stores the spent fuel in dry casks but seeks alternatives.
Kristi E. Swartz
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Although the nuclear power industry touts the fuel as emission free, it still leaves a big challenge behind: what to do with radioactive waste.
The lack of a national policy — either storing the waste in a central repository or allowing it to be reprocessed — has caused California to call for a moratorium on new nuclear plants until the problem is solved. Georgia, on the other hand, is relying on utilities such as Southern Co. to store the waste safely at their power plants.
Before nuclear fuel goes into the reactor to start producing power, it is mostly uranium, oxygen and steel. After the fuel produces power, it turns into a material called nuclear waste, or spent fuel.
Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and remains so for thousands of years. If the waste is unprotected when it first comes out of the reactor, anyone who gets within a few yards of it will receive a lethal radioactive dose.
The federal government by law is responsible for figuring out a strategy for storing spent nuclear fuel over the long term. Last week, a presidential commission said the United States must start looking for an alternative to replace the planned Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, which the Obama administration nixed amid environmental concerns.
The administration canceled plans for a nuclear reprocessing facility in 2009 and then backed away from the idea of burying the waste under Yucca Mountain.
Utilities are instead storing used fuel rods in large pools of water for at least five years. Now, some are taking steps to move the cooled rods into dry casks, where they will remain until the United States sets a national policy for storage.
Southern Co.’s subsidiary, Southern Nuclear, has started storing used fuel in dry casks at Plant Hatch in South Georgia and Plant Farley in Alabama. At Vogtle, officials are building space and buying dry casks to begin storing used fuel from its existing operating units in about two years.
The two new Vogtle units will have large fuel pools next to the reactor containment building, where the used rods will stay until they are cooled.
“As long as they are in the used fuel pool, the radioactive component of them is decaying, ” said Cheri Collins, general manager of external alliances for Southern Nuclear. “The optimum time to have them in there is between five and 10 years and then move them out again under a well-controlled process to dry cask storage.”
Like most of the nation’s other utilities, Southern advocates for a permanent alternative storage facility, such as Yucca Mountain. The company also supports the idea of reprocessing the waste.
“They do this in other parts of the world, ” Collins said. “From an engineering perspective, from a science perspective, it makes sense. It’s hard to argue against it.”
Glenn Sjoden, a Georgia Tech professor who is considered an expert in nuclear system design, said pulling away from Yucca Mountain may force the government to reconsider the idea of reprocessing the waste.
“The government really needs to take care of that reprocessing issue in the next 50 years, ” he said.
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1. Cooling system
The passive containment cooling water tank system has several components that cool the structure and reduce pressure in the case of an accident.
This steel structure prevents the escape of fission products that may result from accidents.
3. Concrete shield building
This barrier provides an additional radiological shield and protects the radioactive systems from tornadoes and other natural disasters.
The pressurizer injects coolant and removes residual heat.
5. Reactor coolant pumps
These pumps turn on if the water level or pressure in the pressurizer reaches a certain low level.
Vogtle expansion to bring jobs, hope to rural region
Thousands of workers will be needed to build new nuclear reactors.
Kristi E. Swartz
Sunday, February 12, 2012
WAYNESBORO — The tiny, green road signs entering Burke and Jenkins counties, three hours southeast of Atlanta, say it all: Work Ready.
The jobless rate in Jenkins was 17 percent in December — twice the national average — while Burke posted an abnormally high 11.3 percent unemployment rate. (Metro Atlanta’s, by contrast, was 9.4 percent.)
So last week’s announcement that federal regulators gave their final approval to the $14 billion expansion of the Plant Vogtle nuclear plant in Waynesboro, the Burke County seat, came as more than welcome news.
“It wakes everybody up, ” said Linda Sorrow, a customer of the Good Day Cafe in Waynesboro’s historic district. “There’s an excitement in the air for new jobs for our local people.”
At the peak of construction in a few years, more than 4,000 workers will be involved in the nation’s first newly permitted reactors in 33 years, ever since the Three Mile Island accident stymied nuclear construction in the U.S.
Already, 1,700 workers — some from as far away as Texas and Washington — are filling the town’s RV parks and motels, and eating at local restaurants. Other business, such as those providing office supplies, gas and rental housing, also are feeling the impact.
Farmers, looking for ways to make the best out of their unused land, advertise that they have RV space to rent.
And Augusta Technical College has about twice as many applicants for its nuclear engineering technology program, which prepares students to work at Vogtle or other nuclear plants.
Atlanta-based Southern Co. won approval from federal nuclear regulators to expand Plant Vogtle, with twin 1,100-megawatt reactors that are expected to start producing electricity in 2016 and 2017. The first two reactors, which opened in 1987 and 1989, had as many as 14,000 workers on site. But today, with much stricter construction oversight and a different way of building the reactors, that level of hiring is a distant memory.
Still, city and business leaders were anxiously awaiting the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval, so Southern could begin major construction work on the two reactors. For Southern’s major utility, Georgia Power, it meant another step away from its reliance on coal-fired plants, which have come under heavy criticism for their large contribution to air pollution.
For rural Burke County, which is where Vogtle is located, as well as for the surrounding counties like Jenkins, the project couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
“It’s the hardest I’ve seen it in my lifetime, ” said former Waynesboro Mayor George DeLoach. “We’re really excited that they [Southern] are coming back, and we feel like we are in a better position to utilize the jobs and get local people the jobs this time.”
For Burke County, the existing power plant and its two operating reactors have cushioned some of the economic blow suffered by nearby Jenkins. Southern, for example, has been a heavy contributor to Burke County’s tax base. DeLoach said that tax money has built schools, a new hospital and a library.
“We’ve put our money in the best possible investment, ” he said. “We’re really blessed.”
But nearby Jenkins has not been as fortunate. Jockey International’s textile plant moved overseas in 2006. That started a downward spiral that left the county with no major industry — and that 17 percent jobless rate.
Diane Evans has been unemployed since 2010. She was laid off from the county hospital, then was forced to quit another nursing job after she was in a car accident. Evans said her cousin is at the technical school, training to work at Vogtle, and she’s told him to sign her up.
“I ain’t picky, I just need a job, ” said Evans. In the meantime, she goes to the local career center two times a day (sometimes three) to look for jobs or send out her resume.
Leslie Clements, who works at the Jenkins County career center, said people come in daily, asking about construction jobs at Vogtle. She’s optimistic about the additional opportunities the plant could bring.
“That’s more people in the area, more people who have to find a place to live, ” she said.
Those who are coming from out of town usually stop in one of the area motels for a night or two, trying to get their bearings. Then they likely will head to an RV park or find a house to rent.
“There are a lot of people coming in. They don’t have anything right when they get here, but then they find something that is permanent, ” said Tony Maness, an executive with Jameson Inn.
If workers come in an RV, then it won’t take long to find a place. New RV parks continue to crop up near Vogtle.
“In small areas where there’s not much, I think it’s something that we can get excited about, ” said Sheila Jenkins, with Sardis Stables Apartments & RV Park. “All of the cities that are around Vogtle, I think they will benefit from that.”
Realtor Janice Morris said she’s seen an uptick in homes being rented. She expects those rentals to change to sales once some of the out-of-town workers are able to sell their previous homes.
Morris, a Burke County native who has been in real estate for 27 years, worked at Plant Vogtle while it first was being built in the 1970s. She wants her children to get jobs and stay in Burke County, and knows Vogtle may be the key to that.
On the other hand, she warns others that the Vogtle project won’t bring the 10,000-plus jobs that it did before.
“So many people have not grasped the fact that [the previous] construction … was so different. We don’t need the construction force that we needed last time, ” she said.
That’s because the large module pieces for the reactor will be fabricated at The Shaw Group’s plant in Lake Charles, La. After they are fabricated, they will be brought to Plant Vogtle and assembled there.
Some parts will come from overseas, as well.
“When they were built before, that was a very different process, ” said Gentry Brann with Shaw.
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Comparing large construction projects
Plant Vogtle (Estimated investment) : $14 billion
Hartsfield-Jackson international terminal: $1.4 billion
Kia auto plant: $1.2 billion
Proposed Falcons open-air stadium downtown: $700 million
Philips Arena: $141 million
Turner Field, originally built as Centennial Olympic Stadium: $209 million
About 948 people typically work at Plant Vogtle’s two nuclear units, but the number has increased to 1,022 workers, including those training to work at the new sites. Here’s a quick look at what goes into making the nuclear facility run:
$68,791: Average salary for Vogtle nuclear workers
1,700: Number of workers preparing two nuclear sites
3,500: Estimated number of employees during peak construction years
800: Estimated number of employees for both reactors once they start producing power
Ga.’s 2 new reactors may trigger even more
Plant Vogtle expansion, OK’d by feds, seen as test.
By Kristi E. Swartz
Friday, February. 10, 2012
It’s official: Georgia will be the site of the nation’s first new nuclear reactors in more than 30 years.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday approved Southern Co.’s plan to build two reactors at Plant Vogtle, south of Augusta.
The Vogtle expansion is considered the vanguard of a possible revival of nuclear power construction in the United States, though projections of as many as 30 new reactors have been scaled back. It’s also a test of whether the industry can build and bring online new reactors without major cost and technical problems.
But Thursday’s decision was not without dissent.
Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the five-member NRC, cast a lone vote against issuing a license for the project. He said he wanted but had not gotten a binding commitment from Southern that it would incorporate changes stemming from last year’s nuclear disaster in Japan.
“Significant safety enhancements have already been recommended as a result of learning the lessons from Fukushima, ” Jaczko said, referring to the plant on Japan’s coast that was devastated by an earthquake and tidal wave, “and there is still more work ahead of us. Knowing this, I cannot support issuing these licenses as if Fukushima never happened.”
The Vogtle project will be built with a new reactor design, the AP1000 from Westinghouse, approved in December. An NRC report said the AP1000 design has “many of the design features and attributes necessary to address” new safety recommendations since the disaster.
“The events of Fukushima are taken into account every day and will be taken into account for years to come, ” Southern Co. Chief Executive Tom Fanning said when asked about Jaczko’s comments.
The NRC’s 4-1 vote directs agency staff to prepare the construction and operating license needed to start major work on the two reactors, which are expected to start producing electricity in 2016 and 2017.
“Southern Co. has consistently promoted for about a year a national energy policy that is grounded in energy security, ” Fanning said in a news conference. “We believe that … nuclear energy is a dominant solution, and today, we take a major step.”
The last new reactors were approved in 1978, the year before a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. After that, increased regulatory scrutiny and skyrocketing costs halted expansion.
Plant Vogtle’s two existing nuclear reactors, Units 1 and 2, ran over budget by $8 billion and took 16 years to build. When Southern and its main utility, Georgia Power, began publicly talking about adding nuclear capacity in 2005, executives met with the construction managers of Units 1 and 2 to make sure that did not happen again.
“What we heard over and over is that you have to have one person in charge of construction, and that person has to be able to call the shots at that site, ” Georgia Power Chief Executive Officer Paul Bowers told the AJC. The project also is using a standard reactor design and is being built with contracts vetted by state utility regulators and an independent construction monitor.
The idea of boosting U.S. nuclear capacity came as looming environmental regulations pushed coal-fired energy out of favor. The next project up for review by the NRC is likely to be just one state away. South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. is seeking approval for two reactors at an existing plant in Jenkinsville, northwest of Columbia.
But some other utilities have curbed nuclear plans because of the lack of financing, decreased demand for electricity since the recession and lower prices for natural gas.
Georgia Power is part of a group of municipal and cooperative electric companies building the new reactors at Vogtle.
The utility is responsible for $6.1 billion of the estimated $14 billion project. Georgia Power customers are already footing the bill for the project, paying down the reactor’s financing costs with a monthly fee on their bills. The project also received $8.3 billion in taxpayer-backed federal loan guarantees.
The United States remains without a long-term plan to store nuclear waste. Utilities including Southern store the fuel rods in large pools of water or in dry casks. The utility will use those methods at the new reactors as well.
Concerns over waste as well as safety have prompted environmental and consumer groups to consider suing to stop Plant Vogtle’s expansion.
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Plants in progress
These utilities have told federal regulators they intend to build more reactors in the near future.
Bell Bend Nuclear Power Plant Berwick, Pa.; Pennsylvania Power & Light (PPL); Target date: 2018-2020
Comanche Peak Units 3 and 4, near Dallas, Texas; Luminant Generation Co.; 2021
Fermi Unit 3, Monroe County, Mich.; Detroit Edison Co.; 2020
Levy County Units 1 and 2, Levy County, Fla.; Progress Energy Florida; 2021
North Anna Unit 3, Louisa County, Va.; Dominion Power; 2020
Shearon Harris Units 2 and 3, Wake County, N.C.; Progress Energy Carolinas; 2020
Turkey Point Units 6 and 7, Miami-Dade County; Florida Power and Light Co.; 2022
Virgil C. Summer Units 2 and 3, Fairfield County, S.C.; South Carolina Electric & Gas; 2016 and 2019
Vogtle Units 3 and 4, Burke County, Ga.; Southern Nuclear Operating Co.; 2016-2017
William States Lee III Units 1 and 2, Cherokee County, S.C.; Duke Energy; 2021
Nuclear power sites in the area:
Southern Co.’s Georgia Power
1. Plant Hatch, Appling County
2. Plant Vogtle, Burke County
Southern Co.’s Alabama Power
3. Plant Farley, Houston County
Tennessee Valley Authority in Alabama
4. Browns Ferry, Limestone County
5. Bellefonte, Unit 1 under construction in Jackson County
Tennessee Valley Authority
6. Sequoyah, Hamilton County
7. Watts Bar, Rhea County
In South Carolina
8. Catawba, York County
9. Oconee, Oconee County
Progress Energy Carolinas
10. H.B. Robinson, Darlington County
South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.
11. Virgil C. Summer, Fairfield County
Kristi E. Swartz has covered utilities and the nuclear power industry for six years for the AJC and, prior to that, for the Palm Beach Post. For this in-depth report, she reviewed government documents and interviewed a range of industry players from company executives, research analysts and engineers, to environmentalists and consumer advocates.