The Nuclear Regulatory Commission began its hearings last week on a request from Southern Co. for a license to build and operate two more nuclear reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle.
It appears likely the NRC will grant the licenses for the Vogtle units either later this year or by next January, which would give Georgia the distinction of having the first new nuclear plants to be authorized in this country in more than 30 years.
I’m not sure that is something we should celebrate. This is the most expensive project ever undertaken in this state — Georgia Power now estimates the cost of building the reactors at nearly $15 billion, a total that will most surely go up after the inevitable cost overruns occur.
Consumers and small businesses even now are paying higher rates state — six years before the plants even begin operating state — just to cover the financing costs of this massive project (the large industrial users lobbied the legislature to exempt themselves from paying the higher rates). These rate hikes are being imposed on the average homeowner in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
There’s nothing to be done about the financial aspects of this project, of course. The Public Service Commission voted to authorize the higher rates and that decision will not be reversed.
There is another factor, however, that makes me very nervous about these nuclear reactors and should make you nervous as well.
Six months ago we saw the horrific meltdown of a nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan, after an earthquake hit that part of the country. Japanese residents will have to deal for years with the high incidence of cancer and other health hazards associated with the release of all that radioactivity.
The vigilant members of our PSC aren’t worried that such a calamity would happen here. I have yet to hear any of them express the slightest concern about the possibility of a meltdown at Plant Vogtle.
"Our leadership in Georgia in building these two new reactors is important for America to be able to increase its carbon-free nuclear capacity," Commissioner Tim Echols said when I asked him about the safety aspect. "I don’t have any hesitation about moving forward with these projects."
I’m sure the commissioners and their good friends at Georgia Power would tell you not to worry, because earthquakes just don’t happen in Georgia. Except that they do.
When an earthquake hit Virginia in August, the tremors were felt in Atlanta and other parts of North Georgia. Fortunately, they were not strong enough to cause significant physical damage.
If you go to the website of the U.S. Geological Survey, you will learn that other earthquakes have hit Georgia harder than the Virginia quake.
Georgia felt tremors from the New Madrid series of earthquakes in 1811-12. There was an earthquake in Milledgeville in 1872. An earthquake centered near Tybee Island shook the Savannah area in 1903, an earthquake happened southeast of Atlanta in 1916, and an earthquake was recorded northeast of Macon in 1964.
Here’s some more information from the USGS files:
"The great Charleston, South Carolina, earthquake of 1886 caused severe shaking experienced in Georgia. On Aug. 31 at 9:25 p.m., preceded by a low rumble, the shock waves reached Savannah ... Ten buildings in Savannah were damaged beyond repair and at least 240 chimneys damaged. People spent the night outside. At Tybee Island light station, the 134-foot lighthouse was cracked near the middle where the walls were 6 feet thick, and the one-ton lens moved an inch and a half to the northeast.
"In Augusta the shaking was the most severe (VIII on the Modified Mercalli scale) in the state. An estimated 1,000 chimneys and many buildings were damaged."
Keep in mind that the Plant Vogtle reactors will be located not that far from Augusta, a city that has had some experience dealing with quakes in the past.
It is true that Georgia is not situated on a fault line, like San Francisco, so the possibility of a severe earthquake here is a small one. But even if that small possibility doesn’t bother the public servants at the PSC, it makes me very nervous.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.