Engaging on Energy: Nuclear Power in the Southeast

Guest Blog | May 13, 2016 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Proponents of nuclear power claim it is a safe, low-cost alternative to fossil fuels that can lower the carbon pollution that contributes to global climate change. The reality is quite different – nuclear reactors currently under construction have been delayed over and over again, are absurdly over budget, and pose serious risks to water quality and public health and safety.

Nuclear power comes with a side of highly radioactive “spent” nuclear fuel, currently stored on site, that must remain isolated from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years. Despite how dangerous radioactive waste is, the question on how to safely manage it for the long-term remains unsolved while nuclear plants continue to generate more, threatening our soil and waterways. Nuclear energy also is the most water-intensive traditional energy source, using up even more water than a typical coal plant! Georgia Power’s already thirsty Plant Vogtle currently withdraws on average 67 million gallons of water per day from the imperiled Savannah River, returning less than one-third. Furthermore, water discharged from nuclear plants is warmer than the rest of the river or water body, which has an adverse effect on aquatic life.

On top of these issues, studies show that nuclear is just not cost-competitive. A recent study by the investment bank Lazard shows that wind and solar power are beating out conventional fuels like coal, natural gas and nuclear on cost. Since 2009, the price of solar energy has fallen by 80 percent, and the price of wind power has fallen by 60 percent. In stark contrast, new nuclear power has only increased in cost; wind and solar are now less than half the cost of nuclear. With clean, no-carbon renewable energy such as wind and solar becoming even more cost-effective, there is no rational reason to replace fossil fuels with as risky an energy source as nuclear power. The threats to water quality and supply, as well as to fragile ecosystems, are not worth it, as clearly demonstrated by Florida Power & Light’s (FPL) polluting Turkey Point nuclear plant near Miami. In addition to being an unnecessarily risky energy source, the process of building new reactors is particularly dysfunctional, as exemplified by TVA’s Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee and the reactors under construction at Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia and SCANA/SCE&G’s V.C. Summer in South Carolina.

Turkey Point nuclear power station

Contamination at Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point Plant

Saltwater and pollution from FPL’s Turkey Point nuclear plant have negatively impacted South Florida’s aquatic ecosystem and threaten to contaminate drinking water in Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys. This aged nuclear plant, situated between the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, is releasing at least 600,000 pounds of salt and other contaminants into the Biscayne Aquifer each day. An analysis by the Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management confirms that this contamination, which has extended to Biscayne Bay, indeed originated from Turkey Point’s cooling canal system. This debacle has South Florida citizens up in arms and has generated a great deal of media attention. SACE staffers raised concerns, along with many concerned citizens representing an array of community interests including environmentalists, businesses and national parks, at a March 2016 meeting of the Miami-Dade County Commission and at an April 2016 jointly held Florida Senate Committee workshop in Homestead. Additionally, SACE, Tropical Audubon Society and Friends of the Everglades filed a citizen lawsuit against FPL under the Clean Water Act (CWA) on July 12, 2016. We have also offered solutions to reduce Turkey Point’s pollution in the form of a new report released in July, which explains why FPL should replace its current cooling canal system with more widely accepted cooling towers.

Despite the fact that FPL cannot operate its current nuclear reactors properly, the utility is proposing to add two extremely expensive new nuclear reactors at this site. Last November, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) pushed back finalization of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from February 2016 to a yet to be determined date because they received nearly 11,000 comments of concern from the public and other agencies! In addition to encouraging our supporters to submit comments to the NRC (our action alerts alone generated over 400 comments), we stoked public outrage over FPL charging their customers in advance for this unnecessary, ~$20 billion project. Given the recent developments at Turkey Point, it would be irresponsible to allow FPL to expand its nuclear program.

TVA’s Risky Watts Bar Unit 2 Reactor

TVA has been building a reactor at its Watts Bar Plant located on the Tennessee River since 1973 – that’s 43 years! After spending $1.7 billion, construction on the project was halted in 1985 due to low demand and the high cost of building new nuclear plants. Construction resumed in 2007, when plant officials estimated that completion of the Watts Bar Unit 2 would cost another $2.5 billion. Since then, costs have soared to $4.7 billion.

Even more concerning than the exorbitant amount of money involved, is the safety of the reactor’s 1960s-era ice condenser design. The Watts Bar reactor will be the tenth ice condenser to operate in the country – the nine others have had many problems. In fact, following the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, a 1990 NRC study found ice condenser reactors to be most likely to suffer catastrophic containment failure.

An investigation by TVA in 2012 actually showed that Watts Bar 2 is vulnerable to reasonably foreseeable earthquakes that it is not designed to withstand, yet the NRC’s operating license review did not include the necessary updated information about seismic risks. Despite the serious risks highlighted by the Fukushima disaster and the 2012 investigation, the NRC Commissioners did not require TVA to reevaluate flood and seismic hazards to determine the necessary design and safety upgrades at Watts Bar 2, going against the advice of the NRC’s own Near-Term Task Force on Fukushima to do so before granting a license for the additional reactor. As of August 2016, the reactor has still not achieved commercial operation status despite being granted a license back in October 2015. (For a more in-depth analysis of the issues surrounding this reactor, read this article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, co-authored by SACE staff.)

Georgia Power’s Expensive Plant Vogtle

Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the Southern Company, and their utility partners are currently building two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, which is located along the imperiled Savannah River. During SACE’s continued intervention before the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), we learned that the cost of Georgia Power has soared from the certified cost in 2009 of $6.113 billion to nearly $10 billion. Georgia Power’s share of the project is less than 50 percent, so the total cost for the project is actually closer to $22 billion, a huge increase from the 2009 estimate of $14.1 billion. Furthermore, this project is at least 39 months behind schedule, with more delays likely. The PSC is now conducting what we are calling an expedited prudency review, in which Georgia Power is requesting PCS approval of all project costs-to-date, about $4.5 billion. The two under construction reactors at SCE&G’s V.C. Summer in neighboring South Carolina are also facing similar cost overruns and delays.

SACE is Working to Stop New Nuclear Power

Despite what the nuclear industry wants you to think, building more nuclear power plants is more trouble than it’s worth. The contamination at Turkey Point and the costly delays resulting in over-budget projects with TVA, Georgia Power and SCE&G are just a few examples of why nuclear generation is not a smart option when less water-intensive choices such as energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy are cost-effective and readily available. Using lessons learns from our advocacy at these and other plants, we are working to halt expanded nuclear power generation across the Southeast and encourage the safe operation of existing nuclear plants.

Pointing out the misinformation that nuclear energy proponents proclaim is a key aspect of our work. The notion that nuclear reactors are safe has been debunked most recently by the Fukushima disaster in Japan, but also by FPL’s contamination at Turkey Point, a situation we are aggressively fighting to remedy with the help of concerned Floridians and local groups. When TVA’s Watts Bar 2 reactor goes online nuclear power will account for 40 percent of TVA’s energy portfolio. TVA’s 2015 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which outlines its long-term plans on how it will provide energy across its service territory, does indicate the utility is slowly shifting away from nuclear power. In fact, TVA recently cancelled all plans to build any reactors at the long-troubled Bellefonte site in Alabama. However, TVA is unfortunately exploring experimental, untested small modular reactors (SMRs) at their Clinch River site in Tennessee. Also, in Georgia Power’s recently finalized 2016 IRP, the utility points to water-guzzling, expensive nuclear energy as a solution to the need for low-carbon technology and has proposed a site for new reactors in Stewart County, Georgia along the Chattahoochee River. Our staff closely participated in Georgia Power’s IRP planning process and continues to work on the Georgia PSC prudency review for Plant Vogtle and will use our expertise and experience to push back against the Company’s ill-advised plans. Wind and solar do not threaten our region’s waterways or come with a side of radioactive waste. Given the declining cost of wind and solar and the exorbitantly high cost of risky nuclear power, the path forward is clear.

Guest Blog
My Profile