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Nuclear Safety, Cost Issues Loom As U.S. OKs Reactor

Steam rises from the cooling towers of nuclear reactors at Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle in Waynesboro, Ga. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved Southern Co.'s application to begin full construction of the nation's first new nuclear units since 1978 at Plant Vogtle.
Mary Ann Chastain

The nuclear industry is celebrating the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision to give the go-ahead for a utility company to build two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, the first license to be granted for a new reactor in the U.S. since 1978. But last year's accident at reactors in Fukushima, Japan, still clouds the future of nuclear power, as does the cost of new power plants.

Southern Co. will build the reactors at its Vogtle site in Georgia, where two older reactors already operate.

Scott Peterson, vice president of the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute, says it's not a "nuclear renaissance," but instead a "first wave" for new reactors.

"It's obviously a critical event for the industry in terms of moving forward with the next generation of reactor technology," he says.

The new reactors would be the first of a standardized design; instead of each one being unique, they'll all be nearly identical.


But demand for electricity is flat, and the price of natural gas, also used to make electricity, is low. The Vogtle plant will cost $14 billion at least to build. Peterson says that's OK. Nuclear still has a place, he says; gas prices are unpredictable, and so is energy from wind and solar.

"Nuclear plants, because they are very large, 24/7 power producers, really anchor the entire U.S. grid for electricity," he says.

There are objections, however. A coalition called the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy plans to sue to stop the reactors. Alliance head Stephen Smith says the region doesn't need a new plant.

Smith says the power company is motivated by a healthy profit margin guaranteed by the state, "not because we need the power, but because this is going to so help their bottom line by bringing this major financial asset in."

Japanese Meltdown

Smith also argues that engineers are still figuring out what went wrong at the Fukushima meltdown in Japan last year. He says Southern Co. might have to make expensive retrofits if the NRC requires big design changes.

"We would argue that, not only from a safety point of view but also from an economic point of view, that you need to get these lessons learned incorporated in before you rush to build the reactor," Smith says.

Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the five-member NRC, apparently agrees. His was the sole vote against the license. He says he wants Southern Co. to promise it will incorporate lessons learned from Japan. But experts on the NRC staff point out that the new reactors, made by Westinghouse, can already handle some of the things that went haywire in Japan.

For example, in Japan, the reactors lost electric power, so emergency pumps couldn't cool the melting cores with water.

Roger Hannah, an NRC spokesman, says the new reactors use gravity instead of pumps to feed in emergency water.

"These passive systems do not require electricity to operate the cooling system, so you could actually flood the core and provide water for cooling without having access to power," he says.

'Important Test Case'

The Vogtle plant is one of several that have been slogging through the permit process at the NRC.

Energy analyst Richard Caperton at the Center for American Progress says its approval provides the nuclear industry with a shot of adrenaline, but it's also going to be a target.

"This is going to be an important test case," Caperton says. "What we learn form the Southern plant is going to impact what we do with nuclear power over the next 10, 20 to 30 years in this country."

If things go as planned, the reactors will be making electricity four to five years from now. If not, the company is seeking an $8.3 billion loan guarantee from the federal government to cover losses.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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