For better or for worse, nuclear energy is making a comeback.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced loan guarantees for construction of two nuclear reactors in Georgia.
Many local observers, like Bruce Hallowell of Clarkesville, champion nuclear power as a clean source of energy.
“It uses no fossil fuels; all it uses is water,” Hallowell said. “The Democrats and the tree-huggers want nothing to do with it, but it’s the cleanest energy available.”
Others, like Nuclear Watch South board member Joan King of Sautee, see it as a hazardous financial drain.
“It’s not safe, it’s not clean and it’s not a solution to the CO2 problem,” King said. “It’s a mature technology yet it can’t support itself.”
Nolan Hertel, a professor of nuclear and radiological engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, said the difference between a nuclear and a traditional power plant is the fuel source.
“Almost all power plants ... have the similar feature that you heat water, make steam and drive a turbine,” Hertel said. “The difference is in the nuclear reactor — you’re using a nuclear source to produce the heat.”
An isotope of uranium produces a large amount of energy when it is split. Reactors are set up to keep that chain going.
“It’s a much more compact source than, say, the chemical reaction from burning coal,” Hertel said.
The planned nuclear construction in Burke County near the Savannah River would be the first in the United States in 30 years.
Rising costs, safety issues and opposition from environmentalists have kept utility companies from building new nuclear power plants since the early 1980s.
“Different people have different opinions,” Hertel said. “The economics of building the plants back then were quite difficult because there were major cost overruns every time they built one. A lot of that had to do with the regulatory environment at the time.”
Backers say the investment in nuclear power is important for the economy in the long term.
“It will employ thousands of people in almost every trade you can imagine,” said Hollowell, who supplied construction equipment during the construction of nuclear plants in Waynesboro and Baxley in south Georgia.
The Burke County project is expected to create about 3,500 construction jobs and permanently employ 850 people. Obama said the new reactors would reduce carbon pollution by 16 million tons a year, compared with a similar coal-fired power plant.
But Sara Barczak, program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said when it comes down to it, nuclear power isn’t as clean as some claim.
“These new reactors to be built … are the most water intensive energy supply option right now,” Barczak said. “They’ve got permits to release heavy metals, chemicals radioactive contaminants on a daily basis.”
Besides environmental risks, critics also cite financial risks.
Reports by Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office have estimated that the risk of default for new nuclear reactors could be as high as 50 percent.
“The taxpayer is on the hook for that,” Barczak said. “It sounds a lot to us like a bailouts to the banks, the bailouts to the auto industry.”
Even in promoting his case, the president conceded that nuclear energy has “serious drawbacks.” He said a bipartisan group of leaders and nuclear experts will be tasked with improving and accelerating the safe storage of nuclear waste, and that the plants themselves must be held to strictest safety standards.
Obama has called nuclear power a key part of comprehensive energy legislation that assigns a cost to the carbon pollution of fossil fuels, giving utility companies more incentive to turn to cleaner nuclear fuel.
Hertel said many of the worries people have about nuclear power are no longer topical because of how much technology has advanced in the last 30 years.
“We have chemical plants all over the place and we don’t worry about the hazardous chemicals getting out, so properly engineered systems are working well,” Hertel said.
For now there is plenty of time for debate. Southern Co.’s application for a license to build and operate the reactors is pending with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The earliest it could be approved would be late 2011 or early 2012.