Powering The State

This is Part 2 in the energy series that ran in Georgia Trend in 2006, ALMOST four years ago now. Wo! Seems like only three and a half years! This one focus on scary nuclear energy. And yes, I was really scared at Plant Vogtle. But then, I get scared with Disney movies. I like being scared. Did I mention that?


PART 2

The first person to tame and domesticate energy was most likely a hominid who shambled back to his ancient campsite clutching a flaming branch, lit from a pile of sun-fired underbrush, or perhaps lava from a volcanic eruption. Today’s domestic energy is generated in multimillion-dollar plants, fueled by coal, gas or, quite often, the splitting of atoms.

Nuclear energy, an industry that was almost killed in the United States following the Three Mile Island fiasco, seems to be poised for a major revival, and that’s the focus of this second part in our three-part series about energy in Georgia.

Last month we looked at liquid natural gas and its role in Georgia’s energy portfolio. Next month we’ll check out alternative and renewable forms of energy, and the need for conservation and greater efficiency in an age when energy demand is outpacing our population growth.

“I think we really are in an energy crisis,” says Mike Garrett, CEO of Georgia Power, whose customer base grows by 40,000 a year. “When we’re talking about meeting the growing energy needs of Georgia, we’ve got to have a plan and a back-up plan, because the law of supply and demand doesn’t take a day off.”

The Plant Vogtle turbine building, large enough to be measured in football fields, is hot and loud, screaming like the inside of a jet engine. Behind us in the containment buildings, nuclear reactors heat pressurized water, ultimately creating the steam to drive the turbine’s giant propeller blades, which spin the generator.

“And this is where electricity comes from,” says Jeff Gasser, shouting above the roar as controlled lightning bolts outside to the transformers, then into the grid that underpins modern civilization.

The electricity flows out from here, a surging, invisible river of energy washing over Georgia. Together, Vogtle’s two reactors can produce about 2,400 megawatts of electricity – more than 11 percent of the state’s needs, or enough juice to power almost 2 million homes.

“It takes a large heat source to make a large amount of electricity,” says Gasser, chief nuclear officer for Southern Nuclear Operating Company, the Southern Company subsidiary that runs Vogtle. “In this case, the heat comes from split uranium atoms in the reactor vessel.”

One black uranium fuel pellet, the size of a fingertip, provides as much energy as 149 gallons of oil, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas and more than 1,700 pounds of coal. But unlike those fossil fuels, which generate the bulk of Georgia’s and the nation’s electricity, nuclear power reactors like Vogtle’s do not emit greenhouse gases – which is why proponents of nuclear power are touting it as the logical answer to address global warming and feed our ever-growing appetite for electricity.

The environmental angle is one of the charms now being wielded by the energy industry to breathe life back into nuclear energy, especially since a handful of notable conservationists, such as Britain’s James Lovelock (author of The Revenge of Gaia) and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore (now estranged from the organization) are supporting nuclear power as a means to counter global warming.

But more than anything else, a favorable political climate that has facilitated increased government incentives, plus the rising price of natural gas, are driving the nuclear revival.

“It’s a combination of things, really,” says Mike Garrett, CEO of Georgia Power, the Southern Company subsidiary that has majority ownership of Vogtle (Oglethorpe Power – OPC – Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia – MEAG – and Dalton Utilities are the other owners). “The question is, what is the most economical plant you can build. You look at gas prices, the cost of coal and its environmental controls, and it clearly brings nuclear power back into the picture.”

It’s taken about 30 years to bring nuclear power back into anyone’s lens, but the focus is definitely there. Southern Company filed for an Early Site Permit with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in August – Georgia Power is hoping to build two new reactors at Vogtle, a few miles from Waynesboro on the Savannah River. Georgia Power would still need ap-proval from the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) before making a decision to build the units, but the company could receive a license from the NRC to construct and operate a plant by 2010, and have new nuclear generation sparking porch lights across the state by 2015.

“That’s the best case scenario for us being able to turn the handle in the nuclear plant and say, ‘OK, here’s more power,'” Garrett says. “Until then, we’re at the mercy of coal and natural gas. I don’t see another technology out there that can replace any of those to meet our growing electricity needs. I always thought that eventually coal and natural gas were going to play out and this country was going to go to nuclear. I’ve been disappointed that it’s taken as long as it has.”

The expense of nuclear projects, a wary investment community and exaggerated predictions for electricity demand in the 1970s moved the industry toward a decline that was hastened by the near meltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island (TMI) and the deadly radioactive steam explosion at Chernobyl in 1986.

After all of that, Garrett says, “Nobody in their right mind was going to get into the nuclear business.”

Nobody did.

The NRC last approved a plant for construction in 1978. Some facilities, like Vogtle, approved before TMI, faced endless construction roadblocks and cost overruns in the wake of steadfast public opposition and increased regulations. Vogtle’s cost skyrocketed from an estimated $660 million to $8.87 billion (including finance charges), resulting in a massive electricity rate hike.

“From an economic perspective, nuclear energy is very risky business,” says Stephen Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), a vocal antinuclear leader. “Risky for individual ratepayers and businesses. I just hope the PSC doesn’t develop amnesia and forget what happened last time.”

By comparison, Georgia Power built its other nuclear facility, Plant Hatch (near Baxley), for about $1 billion. Those units opened in 1975 and 1979. Vogtle’s reactors, built on a 3,150-acre site, went online in 1987 and 1989 and have been feeding the grid ever since.

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