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Debating the Safety, Wisdom of New Nuclear Reactors in Georgia

February 15, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A construction site in Georgia is slated to house the nation's first new commercial nuclear reactors in decades. Jeffrey Brown discusses the controversial Plant Vogtle facility and the state of American nuclear power with Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Nuclear Energy Institute's Tony Pietrangelo.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a big move forward for nuclear power in the U.S.

This construction site in eastern Georgia will house the nation’s first new commercial nuclear reactors in decades. They’re to be built at the Plant Vogtle facility, where two existing reactors have operated since the late 1980s. The plant is situated near Waynesboro, Georgia, 34 miles southeast of Augusta, 170 miles east of Atlanta.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited the site today to see the work in progress. Basic construction had begun more than a year ago, anticipating that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would license the new reactors, which it did last week in a vote of 4-1.

The reactors are the first to be approved since 1978, the year before the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

President Obama has several times called for expanding the role of nuclear energy as part of an overall national strategy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, there are 104 commercial reactors in operation at 65 nuclear power plants nationwide. All told, nuclear power provides 20 percent of the country’s total electricity and 8 percent of energy consumption from all sources.

But the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last year underscored the potential dangers, when reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered partial meltdowns. The damage released dangerous levels of radiation and led to mass evacuations that emptied the countryside for miles around.

The disaster also sparked new questions about the safety of this country’s aging nuclear facilities. One of those is Indian Point, in Buchanan, N.Y., whose license to operate two reactors is soon to expire.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien reported on the debate there on the PBS program “Frontline” last month.

MILES O’BRIEN: A Fukushima-scale accident here, less than 50 miles from the lower tip of Manhattan, would likely mark the end of the U.S. nuclear industry. Seventeen million people live within 50 miles of this plant. And that’s one reason plant operator Entergy’s application for a 20-year renewal is proving so controversial.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, though, the work at Plant Vogtle in Georgia is going ahead full-steam. The first of the new reactors there is expected to be up and running by 2016.

At the same time, the new reactors continue to face opposition and lawsuits over safety concerns, as well as federal loan guarantees that are helping to fund the project.

We join that debate now with Stephen Smith. He’s executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, one of several groups filing a suit, and Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group that represents the industry.

Stephen Smith, I will start with you. And let’s start with the safety issue. You argue that this is not the time to press forward with new nuclear power facilities. Why not?

STEPHEN SMITH, executive director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy: Well, let’s remember, less than a year ago in Japan, we witnessed the catastrophic failure of the nuclear power industry.

We saw multiple nuclear reactors out of control for an extended period of time, literally blowing up before our eyes and spreading uncontrolled radiation into the countryside. The rubble there hasn’t even cooled yet, and now the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted a license for a reactor type that’s never operated in the United States.

We think we need to take a conservative, responsible safety approach and go slow here and make sure that we incorporate the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster in Japan into any new reactor designs before they go forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Tony Pietrangelo, that sentiment exactly — we mentioned that the NRC approved this 4-1. The one dissent was from the chairman, Gregory Jaczko.

And he said, “I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened.”

He clearly thinks that we have not learned the lessons. What’s the argument in favor of this?

TONY PIETRANGELO, Nuclear Energy Institute: Well, the reason the commission granted the license was that, as a licensee now for Vogtle three and four, Southern Company and Georgia Power will be obligated to implement any of the Fukushima requirements. So a licensing condition was superfluous to that.

They will be obligated to implement all the applicable Fukushima requirements that the commission is systematically processing right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have we learned — what lessons have been learned from Fukushima that make you sanguine about going forward?

TONY PIETRANGELO: The principal lessons learned from Fukushima was, one, that an extended loss of A.C. power, electricity, can lead to core damage.

One of the enhanced features of the plant being built by Southern Company at the Vogtle site is that it doesn’t need electricity to shut down safely in the event of a loss of off-site power, a loss of A.C. power at the site. There are passive features that are relied on to safely shut down the plant for well over 72 hours, when you can get help to the site for key safety functions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Stephen Smith, these are new designs, right, for the reactors at the Vogtle plant, a Westinghouse AP1000, that it is said, at least, supposedly incorporates some of what were the lessons from Fukushima. What do you think?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, yes, they’re new. As a matter of fact, they’re very new. They have never operated in this country before, so we’re still learning about how they’re going to operate.

And one of the key things — I would disagree with my friend from the industry, that the reason the chairman dissented was because the industry and the NRC did not force as a part of the actual granting of the license that all the lessons learned would be incorporated.

It is unclear exactly when and how those lessons learned will be incorporated. And so we think that those lessons must be incorporated as a condition of granting the license, not some hopeful future date that they will be incorporated. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re challenging the issuance of the license.

But, yes, these are newer reactors. But, unfortunately I don’t have as good a crystal ball as I think some people in the industry think they have to be able to predict exactly what’s going to happen. What we do know is that if had talked to Japanese nuclear people or any of the folks in the industry before Fukushima, they would have assured you that what happened at Fukushima could not have happened.

And it did, catastrophically. And so we need to be sure that we understand why that happened and that we are going the extra distance necessary to assure that this doesn’t happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr . . .

STEPHEN SMITH: I would think that the industry would actually want to be joining with us to make sure that those safety features are hard-wired in to the license before it’s granted to give that extra level of assurance before we go forward. And that’s what we’re looking for in our legal challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, he just — he asked the question there. He think you’d like to join him in these efforts.

Do you see this as a model for a kind of — there’s been talk about a renaissance of nuclear power in the U.S.

TONY PIETRANGELO: The AP — first of all, to answer the gentleman’s question, the AP1000 is probably the most exhaustively reviewed design, the most transparent design that’s ever been licensed in the United States.

Many of the new requirements that the commission is currently contemplating have already been achieved at the new design in terms of using the latest data on external threats, whether it be flooding, hurricanes, seismic events, etc.

I talked about the advantages it has with respect of loss of A.C. power and how it would cool itself down. So there’s really no reason to stop the construction. In fact, four other commissioners and the NRC staff and their general counsel all recommended proceeding with the license. And the chairman was the only dissenter in that vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: And my further question about this design, does this look as though it’s the beginning of something, a new era, something much bigger than just this Vogtle plant in Georgia?

TONY PIETRANGELO: Yes, it’s a significant milestone.

One reason is that it demonstrated that the new process, the combined licenses, a construction permit and an operating license, in the making for 20 years in the process phase has now been demonstrated by a licensee that they could get through that process efficiently and effectively.

The same thing will happen in South Carolina in the next couple of weeks, when they get granted their combined license. What’s more important, we think, is that we standardize as a country around design families. The AP1000 is one. We have demonstrated, I think, very effectively that we can operate these plants very safely and reliably.

As an industry, we have had a capacity factor on average over 90 percent, around 90 percent for the last decade. What we really need do now is demonstrate that we can license and construct these plants equally reliably. And that’s the next milestone, really, is to stay on budget and on schedule for this project.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of on budget, I do want to talk in our couple minutes left here about the cost issue.

I will start with you, Stephen Smith, because there’s a history, of course, of huge cost overruns. I mentioned in the setup that the government supports this project. I think it’s to the tune of $8 billion in conditional loan guarantees. Is that part of your — explain the concerns that you have over the government involvement in that.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, if this was a mature industry, as they claim it is, then they really shouldn’t be going to the government for handouts and support.

And we think that, because of the inherent economic risk, these price tags on these reactors have absolutely skyrocketed from what they were originally proposed to do. Georgia Power in Georgia is actually having to take money from rate payers now before the reactor is even built because no one wants to invest in these things. They have to get the loan guarantees.

And it’s just extremely costly and economically risky. Much of the much-touted nuclear renaissance has largely evaporated because demand is down, natural gas prices are low, energy efficiency is showing much stronger potential, renewable prices are dropping. And so we’re seeing that we don’t really need to go in the direction of these high-risk energy choices.

And the federal government really doesn’t need to be subsidizing it if the market doesn’t want to support these.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Well, let me ask Mr. Pietrangelo, could this happen without the government stepping in and helping with these loan guarantees?

TONY PIETRANGELO: It could. In fact, if Southern doesn’t close on the loan guarantee, the project will still go forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: So why is the U.S . . .

TONY PIETRANGELO: The South Carolina is proceeding without a loan guarantee. They are in regulated territory, which is — combined with the loan guarantee, the construction work and process that Mr. Smith referred to, and the production tax credits that are part of the Energy Policy Act, it’ll reduce the cost of the project to consumers by a billion dollars.

It’s good public policy for the rate payers to save a billion dollars through these incentives. So it’s a great demonstration of the partnership between private industry and government.

JEFFREY BROWN: But does it not also put the taxpayers at some risk to be left holding the bag . . .

TONY PIETRANGELO: There is some risk, and Georgia Power or Southern Company pays a premium for that loan guarantee. And the government will actually make money on this project.

Southern has a lot of skin in the game, as well as their partners. This is a $14 billion project. They are about $4 billion into that project. So there’s a lot of skin in the game from the utilities building these plants and their partners. So I think, combined with the oversight of construction that’s in place, the learnings that we will great from the Chinese when they build the first AP1000s, these projects will proceed smoothly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

TONY PIETRANGELO: The other thing I will mention . . .

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m sorry. We are out of time. But we will come back, because we will watch this over the years.

Tony Pietrangelo, Stephen Smith, thank you both very much.

TONY PIETRANGELO: Thank you, Jeff.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.