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The South's Nuclear Revival?

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Construction of Vogtle units 3 and 4 (on right) in August 2011. Image: copyright Southern Company, Inc.

After attending a nuclear fuel symposium a few weeks back, I felt it time to examine what's occurring in my own backyard in this regard. What I learned is that Georgia, with its two pending nuclear reactors, may serve as the country's litmus test for the nuclear renaissance.

Currently, there is only one commercial reactor under construction in the U.S., and that's the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor in Tennessee. This project began decades ago, but paused in the 1980's for about 20 years because of decreasing electricity demands. The reactor is now expected to go online in 2013.

The country's first newly designed nuclear reactor - Westinghouse Electric Co.'s AP1000 pressurized water reactor - is now awaiting approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Two of these are scheduled to be built at Plant Vogtle, which is located about 160 miles southeast of Atlanta, Ga., near Waynesboro. Construction should begin in the early days of 2012 as long as Southern Company receives a Combined Construction and Operating License from the NRC, which will be discussed in a couple of weeks on Sept. 27.

"The reactors will provide an additional 2,200 MW of nuclear energy currently being generated at Plant Vogtle and Plant Hatch," wrote Georgia Power spokeswoman Konswello Monroe in an email, noting that one MW of electricity serves 400 households.

Already, Georgia's two nuclear plants - Plant Vogtle and Plant Hatch - comprise 21 percent of Georgia Power’s generation sources. This percentage is bound to increase once the reactors are built, further solidifying nuclear as part of Georgia's electricity portfolio. Yet, in an industry infamous for construction delays and price hikes, the $14 billion project, which received $8.3 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy for Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power, has many people watching.

"I believe we are all concerned about the large expense going into rate base over the next few years," wrote Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise in an email, adding that $6.1 billion is a large price to pay, but that the Commission's integrated resource plan at the time of approval showed the plant to be the least cost option. "The risk of cost overruns has our attention as well, although at this point we are on time and on budget with $2 billion in the ground of the overall cost of $14 billion yet to come."

The success of the plant could hold great sway in the future building of nuclear in our country, added Wise. Even so, not everyone is embracing the possibility of testing a new nuclear reactor here in Ga., especially since safety and dispossessed spent fuel remains areas of concern. Protests have occurred in this light.

At Plant Hatch spent fuel pools and dry cask storage is used to store fuel. At Plant Vogtle, spent fuel pools are used.

"Although we have safe, reliable, on-site options for storing used fuel, it is still important to recognize that our country needs a permanent central repository for used nuclear fuel," wrote Georgia Power spokeswoman Monroe."

In other words, the litmus test for a nuclear renaissance will be comprised of four parts – pricing, construction time, reactor safety and fuel management. Eyes are turned to Vogtle to see how each pans out.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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