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New nuclear construction opposed in Georgia

Published Mar 1, 2012 10:07 PM

Nearly a year ago, the world’s eyes were on Japan as the nuclear disaster began to unfold at Fukushima. Images of nuclear reactors up in flames, workers in hazmat [hazardous material] suits and parents swiping Geiger counters over their radioactive children lit up television screens across the world. Germany and Switzerland have since begun phasing out nuclear power altogether. Italy canceled plans for their nuclear program.

But the U.S. is a different story, and now the world’s eyes are on the state of Georgia as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved plans in early February for Southern Company’s Georgia Power to build the first new nuclear reactors in the U.S. in 30 years at Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Ga.

The plant already houses two operating reactors and sits just across the river from the Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons facility that houses so much Cold War-era waste it’s designated one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the country. The residents there worry about what these new reactors will do to their health and the environment.

People across the U.S. should be worried too. The industry hopes the Vogtle project will kick off a nuclear renaissance, and that has far-reaching implications.

One of the major safety lessons learned at Fukushima was what scientists call the cascade effect — if one nuclear reactor begins to melt down, it will have an adverse and similar effect on the reactor next to it. Currently, U.S. safety standards for existing and proposed reactors are only designed for single reactors at a site, even though most U.S. nuclear power plants house multiple reactors.

This is likely one reason NRC chair Gregory Jaczko voted against the construction and operating license at Vogtle. “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima never happened,” Jaczko said. His was the one dissenting vote in the 4-1 decision. (reuters.com, Feb. 9)

Jobs, health and who pays?

Plant Vogtle is housed in the community of Shell Bluff, in Burke County, a poor, rural, majority African-American area about 20 miles southeast of Augusta, Ga. In the first decade of the 21st century, the county’s poverty and unemployment rates were double that of the national average.

The promise of new construction jobs at the plant draws some community support, but just like the first round of construction, these jobs will be temporary. Area newspapers also report that many of the workers will come from out of state and will be nonunion

For some Shell Bluff residents, these jobs are not worth the trade-offs.

“Some people did get jobs,” Shell Bluff resident Annie Laura Stephens said, “but a lot of us got something else. We got cancer. I lost sisters, brothers and cousins to cancer, and every family I know has lost somebody to cancer.” (thegrio.com, Jan. 25)

High cancer rates likely result from radioactive contaminants in drinking water and food, yet no comprehensive environmental monitoring is in place to determine if water, crops, fish or livestock are safe to consume.

The Department of Energy cut federal funding for environmental monitoring to Georgia in 2004, the same year that Southern Company expressed interest in DOE funding for a new nuclear plant.

Shell Bluff residents also live in fear of a nuclear meltdown. At a community meeting in January, residents raised concerns that the radios Southern Company issued to alert them in case of emergency are outdated and unreliable, and that area dirt roads might not hold up if an evacuation is necessary during a rain storm.

Because of the cost and risks of nuclear power, Wall Street will not invest. Georgia Power is financing their $14 billion project on the backs of taxpayers and Georgia ratepayers. The company received an $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee, and is covering other project costs by charging every customer a monthly tax called a “nuclear construction cost recovery fee.”

Already $42 million over budget on the project, the fee is increasing and will probably do so until the new reactors go online around 2017. Considering that Vogtle reactors 1 and 2 went over budget by about 1,200 percent when they were built in the 1980s, and that the Georgia Public Service Commission last fall struck down a risk-sharing mechanism that would hold Georgia Power, not the public, responsible for their cost overages, Georgia residents can expect this financial burden to become heavier over time.

‘Stop Vogtle’ campaign gears up

People across the Southeast will gather in Shell Bluff on March 11, the Fukushima disaster anniversary, to stand in solidarity with the community. Buses from Atlanta and Asheville, N.C., have been organized.

Georgia environmental groups have several lawsuits against the NRC for safety violations. Activists have launched a pledge drive to encourage ratepayers not to pay the nuclear construction cost recovery fee on their bills, as well as a “Stop Vogtle” outreach and education campaign. For more information visit georgiawand.org, georgiapowerripoff.wordpress.com and nonukesyall.org.

Courtney Hanson is Public Outreach Director for Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions.